Bringing design thinking to grade schools

blogNashville was lucky to receive a visit from SparkTruck yesterday as part of their cross-country tour to bring design thinking and hands-on learning to young students.

From higher ed to primary ed

SparkTruck is a mobile maker lab run by a handful of alumni from Stanford’s Their goal is to bring fun, hands-on learning workshops to grade school and middle school children across the US.

The idea for SparkTruck came from a year-long thesis project at Stanford in which a group of students talked with teachers, students, and other experts about hands-on learning. The group learned that many schools don’t have a budget or room in their curriculum to support programs for young builders.

SparkTruck is promoting these types of projects with workshops hosted through their “educational build-mobile.” In the back of their truck, they’ve packed a 3D printer, a laser cutter, and lots of tools for curious minds to get building.

Physical learning and digital learning: BFFs

We love what the SparkTruck team is doing. At Carnegie Mellon’s Human-Computer Interaction Institute—an establishment that shares many beliefs and practices with the—Ben & I studied design thinking for both digital and physical products. In fact, Ben’s capstone project required extensive prototyping and iteration of a collaborative educational system with a major physical device component. Kodiak wouldn’t be the product it is today if that work wasn’t a part of his higher education.

Designing physical objects taps parts of your brain that aren’t activated by virtual interaction—but the payoff carries into the digital world. As today’s children grow up in a world where technology is embedded in an increasingly large number of objects, it will become more and more important that they learn to harmonize the physical with the digital.

Read about SparkTruck’s Nashville stop on their blog.

A look at student profiles and reporting in great educational apps

Here at Kodiak, we’ve spend a lot of time playing with educational apps. To understand the state of learning on the iPad, we like to study common practices, look for design patterns, and find the apps that are pushing the user-experience envelope.

Over the last couple of months, we’ve noticed an exciting trend. Apps like Mathboard, Jungle Fractions, and others are adding classroom management features – most significantly, support for multiple student profiles. This is an important step toward
usability in the classroom setting. Teachers are interested in understanding students’ use of the iPad, and parents want to be able to identify the progress of individual children. Apps that offer a global leaderboard or high-score lists aren’t very useful at the end of the day, because iPads—on a cart shared between teachers—may have cycled through the hands of fifty or more students.

We’ve taken a look at some of the apps that allow parents to create and manage profiles for each of their students. We’ve been impressed by a few of them in particular, and we wanted to call out some of the patterns we’ve identified here.

Choosing Student Profiles

Most of the apps we’ve seen let students select their account before they start playing. Quite a few of the apps, such as TeachMe: Kindergarten and Dot to Dot Numbers and Letters (below) allow a parent or teacher to add student pictures, which is a nice touch that adds an extra layer of personalization to the app. In the apps we looked at, parents could add or remove players directly within the app, making it easy to create new accounts. Each app requested the student’s first name, and for apps with multiple difficulty levels, other information to place them at the right level within the app.

When designing a student selection interface, there are a couple things to note:

  • Apps with good student selection interfaces force the student to identify themselves before they start playing. You shouldn’t assume that the same student is playing if they close and re-open your app.
  • If there are a large number of students in the class, it’s important to indicate that the user might need to scroll to see all the users. We liked TeachMe: Kindergarten‘s student selection bar across the bottom of the screen, but it’s not clear that you can scroll to see more students. A child might just tap a random name if they don’t know they can scroll over to their own. Having a button half-visible on the edge of the scroll view can help make this obvious.

In-app performance reports

Math Fact Master and TeachMe: Kindergarten have some great features that allow teachers and parents to see how children have been performing. These apps give summary-level information to parents, and also let them see which specific questions students have been answering wrong.

The reporting interface of Math Fact Master

The reporting interface of TeachMe: Kindergarten


MathWise goes one step further, offering detailed charts that show students’ proficiency with different numbers and topics. They offer an “All Students” option so it’s possible to see where an entire class might be struggling or need practice.

Going a step further with Kodiak

We believe that separating student profiles will help make educational apps more useful in a classroom setting, and it’s great to see apps trending in this direction. With the Kodiak Reporting SDK, we’ve taken classroom management on the iPad a step further. With many apps and many different account management interfaces, it’s an incredible challenge for teachers to set up student accounts and teach children to sign in. Adding accounts and understanding student progress can still be a major undertaking when a class is using a handful of iPads and a variety of apps. In our research, we found that the interfaces above are more commonly used by parents, who only have to put a few kids’ information into each app.

To help teachers, student account management needs to be centralized. With Kodiak, we’ve taken the approaches above one step further. Educators can set everything up on the web, and sign into Kodiak from a supported app on each iPad to link those devices to the school’s account.

Whenever students open a Kodiak app on a class iPad, they see the student list below and log in:

The student list, complete with previous achievements, saved game state, etc… are synced with the cloud. Students can be managed from our website, and changes take effect in all supported apps on all the classes’ iPads. 

In talking with teachers, we realized that many of them weren’t interested in viewing student progress on the iPad. They loved the sort of graphs and charts that MathWise offered, but they said it was more of a feature for parents, since the progress monitoring broke down as soon as multiple iPads were in use by the class.

To accommodate this, Kodiak provides a completely cloud-based reporting platform. Our partner apps can submit student questions and answers to our API, and then teachers and parents view reports on the web:

If you’re building an app that needs classroom management features, or if you think they’d be a great new feature in your existing app, check out our free SDK. Using Kodiak, you can integrate this functionality into your app without having to build it from scratch and benefit from our teacher-approved reporting platform!