A hart to heart on Laura’s background, and how she became an esteemed leader in the business of STEAM education.
“I discovered, while watching my adult students have so much fun, that finding their own groove of learning was much more important than a traditional top down teaching approach.“
The Robofun Story INTRO: Vision Education and Media’s (VEMNY) & Robofun®’s 21st anniversary gives me a tremendous sense of pride and a huge dose of, “What the heck was I thinking?” It offers a time to reflect on what planted the idea for this business to begin with. The answer ultimately comes down to this: I have always had an insatiable curiosity about learning coupled with an innate resistance to accept the status quo. The intersection of both has defined who I am, and what I’ve wanted to do with my life. When I started Vision Education and Media, commonly known as Robofun®, in 1998, pregnant with my now twenty-one-year-old son, I didn’t really comprehend what it meant to run a company. Up until that point, I’d had an incredibly rewarding sixteen years teaching children creative uses of technology. I graduated from Skidmore College in 1983 having studied painting and sculpture, won the award for most talented painting student, and that fall became The Buckley School’s first Technology Teacher. I stayed at Buckley for fourteen years having full freedom to develop and lead the school’s technology program. During this time I also earned a Masters in Education from Harvard and had the amazing opportunity to collaborate at the MIT Media Lab with key influencers in the field of Educational Technology. But let’s start at the very beginning, shall we? Laura Hart THE BEGINNING: When I was very young, my dad ran for mayor of Albany, New York, our hometown. He lost, and in retrospect, he was tilting at windmills, the chance of his victory was very small. Watching my father run for office and lose the election led me to think big and to reach for my own larger-than-life goals. I became comfortable with the knowledge that my goals and plans may not happen easily or quickly. Throughout my teens, I always worked with kids: camp counseling, being a shadow for an autistic student, and volunteering within elementary school classrooms. I loved thinking about how we learn and I loved teaching. Then, during my undergraduate studies, while I came into my own as a painter and sculptor, my interest in STEM (Science, Technology, Education, Mathematics) took root. At my internship with the Capital Children’s Museum in Washington D.C. I attended a talk on Children and Learning by a man named Dr. Seymour Papert. Little did I know that that first meeting would change the course of my life. In his talk, Dr. Papert, a student of Piaget’s and the founder of the MIT Artificial Intelligence Lab (what later became the Media Lab) shared a programming language he had developed called LOGO, but at the heart of it all, his talk reignited my interest in how we learn. I returned to Skidmore eager to study LOGO and learn more. Back then no one knew what I was talking about, but through a series of independent studies with one of Papert’s students, I was able to learn about technology and children and LOGO. I was an irreverent school goer who loved to learn, but disliked the school system, and as such, Dr. Papert’s work spoke to my soul. It helped clarify my thoughts about how we learn, don’t learn, and how we can set up optimal learning environments for children. “Seymour’s writing helped to clarify my thoughts about how we learn, don’t learn and how we might set up great learning environments for children.” Upon graduating and beginning my teaching career at Buckley (where I subsequently taught one of our President’s sons), I had to design my own curriculum for Kindergarten-9th graders. There was no computer program when I arrived at Buckley, so I went from a blank canvas in art school to a blank screen on a Commodore 64. I had taught myself LOGO because there was no Educational Technology field at the time. And now I began to design meaningful, engaging projects that married creativity and programming. While teaching at Buckley (and later The Little Red School House), I spent my summers painting in Maine. By some coincidence or a guiding hand, in 1986, I literally ran into Dr. Seymour Papert in a bakery in Blue Hill, Maine. This chance encounter led to a collaboration with Dr. Papert on teaching children and teachers. Some people come into our lives for a short visit and have little effect. Others appear and reappear unexpectedly changing our lives forever. That’s how it was for Seymour and me. For over 30 years, Seymour was my mentor, business partner, and friend. When I first saw him in the bakery, I was not sure if I should speak up. After all, I was not trained as a computer scientist. I was completely self-taught. And here I was meeting the person who went to LEGO and developed both the programming language LOGO and LEGO Robotics! I soon discovered we were kindred spirits and that he didn’t often have an opportunity to work deeply with someone outside the Ivory tower of MIT, someone on the ground using his work. How is it that I began a business teaching STEM before STEM existed? Seymour Papert inspired me. How did I begin teaching coding before the word coding was used by laypeople? Seymour challenged me. He didn't directly challenge me to do exactly what I did; he challenged me to follow my instincts and my yearning for a safe space for children to discover their own creativity, courage, and abilities. “In my world, art and technology education have overlapping similarity…both start with a blank canvas - or blank screen. At Buckley, I began to design meaningful, engaging projects that married creativity and coding.“ In 1989, Seymour and I started something called “The Stonington Retreat.” This was an intensive five-day summer learning retreat for teachers. We ran it for the next thirteen years. Seymour wanted to bring teachers to Deer Isle, Maine to reconnect with the joy of learning. Each session, we’d work with ten to thirty teachers. The weeks were amazing. We needed four or five days to allow us to get into deeper learning without the constraints we often faced: a limited time period in the school day, and the demands of everyday living. I discovered that giving my adult learners the chance to find their own groove of learning was most effective. Just as I had already learned in teaching children, I was reminded that in our desire to impart knowledge, we often get in the way of learning. I started stepping back and listening more to what was really needed— in teaching both children and adults. Lessons became organized and a structure was found based on my students’ interests rather than my own assumptions as to what was important to cover at a given time. Invariably, this method allows us to cover more material and do so more deeply. I found combining my background in painting and sculpture with LOGO, LEGO Robotics, and other maker-y endeavors involving circuits, wires, and motors was really challenging and really fun for me. I initially had no curriculum, but fortunately as these disciplines were so unformed there were no curriculums to use. I had a lot of creativity and I loved coding. My students and I came up with projects that meshed coding with art; we designed New York City buildings, allowing the size of the buildings to be controlled using a concept called variables, and sharing each building with each class member. Every child could create their own New York City skyline using the work of each of their classmates. With my Kindergarteners, we created collaborative digital collages. I took my students to see Alexander Calder’s Circus exhibit and we made robotic circuses. I learned that my classroom had to be a learning place for all, especially me.
“I learned that my classroom had to be a learning place for all, especially for me.“Laura Hart