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Ames Laboratory
October 19 is the anniversary of the 1973 Federal Court decision validating claims that the digital computer was originally invented by John Vincent Atanasoff at Iowa State University, providing a teachable moment for discussion of the Atanasoff-Berry Computer, the history of the computer, and the concept of invention.
History of Technology, Computer History, Inventors & Inventions, John Atanasoff, Problem Solving
Sources: The K-12 TLC Guide to History of Computing
The K-12 TLC Guide to the History of Technology<
The K-12 TLC Guide to Inventors and Invention
The K-12 TLC Guide to John Vincent Atanasoff
The K-12 TLC Guide to Problem Solving
Strategies: 1. Focus on John Atanasoff and the Atanasoff-Berry Computer.

2. Focus on the history of computing.

3. Focus on inventors and inventions.

1. The basics:
  • Who was John Atanasoff?
  • What was the Atanasoff-Berry Computer?
  • When did Atanasoff first develop his digital computer?
  • Where did Atanasoff do his work?
  • Why has there been some disagreement over who invented the first digital computer?
  • How did Atanasoff's work influence others?

2. What did the Atanasoff-Berry computer look like, and what did it do?

3. Why was it necessary for a court to decide who invented the first digital computer?

4. Why is it important to know who invented the first computer?

5. Who were the other people who claimed to have invented the first computer, and why?

Activities: 1. Assign different aspects of the history of the computer to different students or student groups, and have them use the K-12 TLC Guide to the History of the Computer as a starting point for their research. When the research is complete, bring the students together for a symposium on The History of the Computer, with each student contributing "intelligence" collected from their research.

Areas of research can include:

  • The individuals most responsible for the development of the computer.
  • The Atanasoff-Berry Computer.
  • ENIAC.
  • The uses of the original computers.
  • Computers and problem solving.
  • The technologies that have changed computers.
  • The milestones of computer history.
  • The personal computer.
  • Hardware v. software.

Conduct the symposium from the perspective of problem solving. Begin with a blank sheet, and, through their discussions, have the students develop as a team a timeline of historic milestones in computer history. During the symposium discuss the issues of invention and the rights of invention, using the invention of the computer as an example. Often times in the course of invention:

  • There are those who come up with the idea but are not able to turn the idea into a working model.
  • There are those who develop the working model but do not understand its significance.
  • There are those who take the original working model, improve it and popularize it.
  • There are those who are able to take the model, market it, and become commercially identified with the concept.

Of these, who gets credit for the concept of the invention, and why? What are the personal, historic and commercial advantages associated with being identified as the inventor?

Conclude your symposium by having each student make a list of the five most important milestones in computing history. Collect the lists, compile them, and create a rank-ordered class list of the milestones of computer history based upon the frequency with which each milestone is included on the individual student lists. Record the class list on a poster board head Milestones in Computer History, and display it in a prominent location in your classroom as a reference for later discussions.

    PHILOSOPHY: The focus of each Teachable Moment is on the student as learner/researcher and the teacher as mentor/guide. The Internet-driven K-12 Teaching & Learning Center is the ultimate student research tool, and, given 24-48 hours, every student can gain access to the Internet (from school, home, public library) and use the K-12 TLC to conduct basic directed research. This is the premise upon which each Teachable Moment is constructed.

      a. Teachable Moments usually assume student research will be conducted as an assignment outside of the classroom, thus Teachable Moments do not require classroom access to the Internet.

      b. When possible, Teachable Moments break the information to be learned into small manageable chunks, so that each student or student/group can research a single chunk of knowledge with the responsibility of bringing that knowledge back to the class and sharing it with their classmates.

      c. Rather than focusing on the teacher as an information provider, Teachable Moments provide opportunities for teachers to assist their students in the acquisition of information and the sharing, assessing and assembling of information into a coherent body of knowledge that is orderly and understandable.

      d. Remember, your goal is to help your students be successful. You want to constantly challenge them, but you want them to rise to each challenge and be successful. Work with the students, not against them. Before starting each Teachable Moment, tell students exactly what they need to know and exactly what you expect of them. The objective is to make the students look good by showing them the way to success, and helping them achieve success.

    INTRODUCTION: As the guide, it is the role of the teacher to introduce the students to the basics of their new topic of discussion: Who, What, Where, When, Why and How; setting the stage so that the students have a general understanding of the topic, its relevance, and its importance to them. The teacher's role at this point is not to teach facts in the traditional sense, but rather to provide a pre-mission briefing that will generate an interest and enthusiasm among the students that will compel them to conduct their research thoroughly and with a sense of purpose.

    The introduction is also a good time to allow students to select their topics for research. Research topics can be assigned, but students will take greater ownership in their topics if allowed to select. A number of different methods can be used, but, for each, the teacher will need to have prepared ahead of time a list of available topics. For example, students can:

      1. Select topics from a blind draw by pulling a topic from a hat.

      2. Select topics from the list in an order determined by a blind lottery of the students.

      3. Select topics from the list in a rotating order week by week (by seating assignment, alphabetical, an initial lottery).

    RESEARCH: Research is the students' responsibility, but it is the responsibility of the teacher to provide their students the tools and the skills required to conduct productive research. The K-12 Teaching & Learning Center is built to provide students and teachers the most effective and efficient research tools available, and each Teachable Moment includes a list of those K-12 TLC guides that are relevant to the task. These guides need to be shared with the students as their tools for the research at hand.

    Development of the proper skills required to effectively use their research tools is critical to student success. Obviously, students who do not possess the skills to conduct the research for which they are being held responsible are doomed to failure. It is the teacher's responsibility to make sure that the students acquire the research skills they need, and to assist the students in maintaining and refining these skills.

    The best exercises available for research skill development are the 5-Minute Quests provided with each entry to the K-12 TLC Daily Almanac. As an example, Click Here to see the 5-minute Quest for today's Daily Almanac. The Quests are provided at three different levels to accommodate varying student abilities, and the use of these quests each school day will go a long way toward building critical student research skills.

    It is suggested that use of the 5-minute Quests begin as a teacher-led class exercise for the first few days to familiarize the students with the process and skills, and then make the 5-minute Quests a routine out-of-class exercise for which students are to accept responsibility. For example, the 5-minute Quests are short fun exercises that students and parents can enjoy doing together from home. It is also ideal to have a computer in the school library dedicated to the just the Daily Almanac and the 5-minute Quests, so that students can use the Quests before and after school, during lunch and/or during their scheduled library periods.

    SOCRATIC SYMPOSIUM: Students learn best by doing, and teachers best facilitate the learning process when they bridge the gap between the students and knowledge rather than positioning themselves as a gatekeeper between the student and knowledge. After students have been given adequate time to complete their research, the Socratic Symposium is an excellent tool for teachers to use to guide students through the process of aggregating and organizing the information they have acquired through their research.

    The Socratic Symposium often can be most effective when every student/student group comes to the symposium with unique information to contribute. If each student/student group has been given the task of only researching a single "chunk" of the total information to be covered by the symposium, then each student/group will come to the symposium with a narrow perspective that is uniquely their own. This creates a learning environment in which each student becomes dependent upon their classmates for the rest of the information, and establishes among the students a collegial sense with each of the students contributing information that is essential to the group. This gives each student a position of importance within the class, and provides an excellent basis for lively discussions and interactions, as students learn from students with the teacher guiding the process from the side.

    The role of the teacher is that of Socrates, asking probing and leading questions, maintaining an orderly exchange of information, and making sure that students allocate their time wisely so that the entire base of knowledge is covered. The teacher needs to maintain control, but should do so by saying as little as possible. Students need to talk in order for the exchange of knowledge to take place, and it is the teacher's responsibility to make sure every student is engaged as an active contributor in the exchange.

    Using this approach, students will occasionally come up with information that is news to you as well. These are moments to savor. Don't be threatened by them or shy away from them. Challenge the students to extend your knowledge as well as theirs. Don't hesitate to admit that their information is new to you, but, as any good learner should, question their information to make sure they understand it, that it is factual and that it comes from a reliable source. Is the information factual and supported by reliable resources, or is it conjecture (perhaps an urban legend) that is just being propagated by the source and now the student? You don't want to embarrass or deter students who bring "new" facts to class, but you do want them to know that their knowledge will be challenged and that they need to have their facts straight when they arrive. If everything checks out, compliment the student(s) responsible, and encourage them and their classmates to "stump the teacher" whenever they can. You will be amazed how much smarter you will become using this approach over the years!

    CRITICAL ASSESSMENT: Once the exchange and discussion of information has been taken place, it is imperative that the students make a critical assessment of that information so that it makes sense to them and will become a part of their long-term knowledge. When the information discussed lends itself to comparisons, a good technique for ending a symposium is to select a list of items for the students to rank order, as the process of rank ordering requires the students to assess each item on the list and to critically contrast the value of each item versus the rest.

    Suggested Concluding Steps:

      1. The Five Best List:

        a. When appropriate, have each student make their own list of the "5 best" from the list of items. Students should do this without discussion with other students. Students are not held responsible for their selections, so it is a non-threatening exercise, yet it forces them to think critically on their own and gives them a voice in the final selection.

        b. Collect the student lists and use them as ballots to create a class list for the rank order. Count the ballots as a class without identifying which ballots belong to which students. This exercise will allow each student to see how their choices compare to those of their classmates.

        c. List in rank-order the five items which received the most votes, and ask for comments from the students. Do they agree with the final order of the top five? Do they agree these are indeed the top five? Are there other items they feel should have been included on the top five? Why do they think these were left off?

        d. For better or worse, the top five now comprise your class Hall of Fame for this topic. It is suggested that you use a piece of poster board and a marking pen to create a Hall of Fame list that can be displayed in the classroom. Not only does this display create a sense of permanence, validity and importance about the exercise you have just completed, but it also provides a ready resource to which you and the students can quickly refer whenever you return to this topic. By adding to the display each Hall of Fame as you complete each Teachable Moment, you are creating a public record that will become ingrained in your students' minds as a daily reminder of the essential knowledge that has been chosen by your class to be of the highest value and importance.

      2. Word Association Chart:

        a. When you are concluding your discussion of an important concept that you want to especially impress upon your class, ask each student to list five adjectives that come to mind when they think of the concept. Collect the lists, and combine them to make a master list, rank-ordering the words depending upon the number of lists that include each word.

        b. Create a Class Word Association Chart, and add to the chart the name of the concept followed by the five words at the top of your rank-ordered list. Display the chart permanently in the classroom where everyone can see it, and add to the chart whenever you have an important concept that you want to impress upon your students.

        c. Addition to the word association chart will: 1. Impress upon the students this is important, 2. Serve as a permanent reminder of important concepts through the year, and 3. Cause students to reflect back on the symposium when this concept was discussed.

      3. Assessment Distribution Charts:

        a. For activities such as a symposium on the life and times of an American President, it can be helpful to conclude by allowing students to grade the president (A-F), and submit their grades to the teacher on a secret ballot.

        b. From the secret ballots, a class assessment can be determined and recorded on a poster board to be displayed in the classroom. On the poster board, clearly indicate what has been assessed, the raw totals for each grade received from the student ballots, the percentage of the total for each grade, and, if possible, a bar graph illustrating the totals for each grade received.

        c. Posting these assessments will help students to recall the class discussion of the issue or person, and it will help them to relate mathematical distributions to an activity to which they have contributed.

    IMPLEMENTATION: It is suggested that you select one Teachable Moment for each week, and that a four-day period be used for each Teachable Moment. For example, a few minutes could be used on Monday to introduce the Teachable Moment for that week, and for students to select research topics. Tuesday and Wednesday can be used for the students to conduct research on their own, and Thursday can be class symposium day to complete the exercise.

    SUMMARY: A key to the effective use of the K-12 Teaching & Learning Center is an understanding that Teachable Moments offer a fundamental shift in the student-teacher partnership, by returning to the student a greater responsibility for learning and by enhancing the opportunity for teachers to promote active student learning. The K-12 TLC helps to support the old axiom of replacing the teacher as the Sage on the Stage with the teacher who serves as the Guide on the Side.

    Whatever the approach, a creative, imaginative, energetic, caring teacher is still the key component in quality education, and it is the mission of the Teachable Moments to create an environment that allows quality teaching to promote the best possible learning opportunities for all students to reach their potential each and every day.

    The Teachable Moments and the K-12 Teaching and Learning Center are resources created by teachers for teachers, and you are encouraged to submit your comments and suggestions at any time. E-mail

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