by Xinyi Zhou '10
Michael Douma ‘93 is the Executive Director of the Institute for Dynamic Educational Advancement (IDEA) www.idea.org, a non-profit that works to “enhance the public’s knowledge of science and culture”. He has worked on projects you’ve probably used, such as time.gov and WebExhibits. We chat with Mr. Douma about his time in the Magnet and his work with IDEA.
What was your first experience with the World Wide Web? When'd you start building things on the web?
I was exposed to
the web at Blair on the early Unix machines and text-based email. I first saw
the web as we know it in the NCSA Mosaic browser around 1994. In 1996, I worked
on interactive CD-ROMs, which were about to become obsolete. I first built web
pages in 1997. My work with multimedia on CD-ROMs was partly why I was
aggressive in wanting to bring more interactivity to the early web.
Why did you decide to attend the Magnet?
I had attended a great gifted and talented elementary school program at Burning Tree ES, followed by a mainstream middle school that was hugely boring by comparison. I was a year ahead in math, so in 8th grade I went to the local high school for geometry classes. Meanwhile, boredom drove me to get into trouble for various infractions, like hitting tennis balls onto the school's roof, and then climbing up on the roof to fetch them! It was clear that if a more advanced program was available for high school, I should grab the opportunity. I had applied to both the IB and the Magnet, and was accepted to both, but the Magnet was a better fit since I was much more interested in science than literature.
How'd you decide to work on the intersection of technology and education?
Coming from the
Magnet, technology was in my veins, so the real question is how I started to
get involved with education.
During my freshman year at Brandeis, I took
Introduction to Chemistry with Michael Henchman, a brilliant and charismatic
scientist and professor. At the time, I was an amateur photographer, and was
interested in using colored lens filters for black-and-white photography. I
wanted to know exactly what the filters were doing, so I asked Dr. Henchman if
I could put my filters in the lab's spectrophotometer. He agreed, and later
invited me to be a teaching assistant for his "Chemistry and Art"
course. Dr. Henchman was keen to bridge the gap between the sciences and the
humanities, and in the following years, we worked together on several
multidisciplinary projects -- both involving his expertise (chemistry and art),
and my interests (neuroscience and art). These collaborations expanded, and
were later funded by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science
Foundation, which were part of the IDEA's early revenues.
was my first real taste of web-scale
traffic... and bureaucratic intrigue. At the time, simple, online government
services were rare. It was 1998, and I worked on the web sites for several
divisions of the NIST Physics department. The department had a rudimentary web
clock buried deep on their web site. I pitched the idea of a simple, focused
site to my administrative contact (John Wessels at NIST Physics, Boulder). John
is bright and creative, and authorized the new project. But we knew that for
the new project to be useful, it needed a short, memorable URL. Time.gov
The best URL we could think of was "time.gov", but there was a moratorium on new
".gov" domains. Only presidential requests and inter-agency
collaborations were allowed new domain names. We didn't know the president, so
we needed an inter-agency collaboration -- but there was a rivalry between the
civilian metrology departments at NIST and the military department at the U.S.
Naval Observatory. The actual scientists collaborated, but the management at
each institution made competing claims that they were the sole official time
for the United States. After some lobbying, "They'll do it if you do it!"
common sense prevailed, and both department leads, Dennis McCarthy at USNO and
Don Sullivan at NIST, agreed to launch a collaborative, official time site. (It
was actually hosted at NIST, but their atomic clocks only differ by 10
nanoseconds.) With approval from the department heads, I ghostwrote a letter
from NIST's head of public affairs, Mat Heymann, to the manager of .gov
domains, touting this new, joint interactive service. It was approved.
Despite their earlier significance, there are a lot of similar resources available now -- how has IDEA evolved? Has the intended audience for IDEA's products changed?
Absolutely. I'm glad both time.gov and WebExhibits are unremarkable now. Single-function web sites are common (the concept has evolved into apps), and our government continues to communicate with and serve the public online. Interactive online learning is also common, though now the best innovation is taking place in massive-enrollment online courses (MOOCs) and mobile apps.
What's next for IDEA?
We are working on two related projects for tablet devices. We are making a reference/game app, called WordFlare, for discovering and matching related terms. The app includes over 2 million topics from Wiktionary and Wikipedia. Also, we are working on a tool for people to make and share concept maps on their iPads (called SpicyNodes).