In the 1970s, a computer science professor at Stanford University was trying to make a point.
He wanted to show the public that computers could teach people how to read and write, he said.
A couple of years later, he was at MIT and working on a new computer, called a “calculator,” that could help students learn math and science.
He knew the calculator would have to be cheap and easily accessible, so he turned to the MIT Media Lab.
He bought a cheap calculator from eBay and went to work designing the software.
It was a dream come true.
In 1974, the calculator was ready for the first-ever computer science fair at MIT.
The next year, it won the computer science competition.
“It was amazing, the whole thing,” says Gary Ehrhardt, who teaches computer science at MIT, in a phone interview from his home in Los Angeles.
“And that was a major achievement.
And it was a little surprising, too.
I mean, we didn’t really know how much it was going to cost, and we didn.
The cost was about $20,000.”
It was at the fair that Ehrhart started to notice a difference between the calculator’s software and the software that was used by teachers.
Students could get an education by watching the instructor teach, but they couldn’t learn by studying and thinking, he says.
“The idea of a computer in education before computers, it was really revolutionary to me.”
He had already developed an inexpensive calculator and had started to plan how he would use it.
It would be an educational tool for students to use when they were learning computer science, but it would also be an effective tool for teachers to use, he figured.
And for educators to be able to teach students how to think and to learn in the context of a real-world classroom environment.
So Ehrhart began to develop an education app for the calculator, called K-Calculator.
His first app, called Pause, showed a list of numbers and asked students to type a number in a box and then click the box to stop.
The app had a few problems, like the number could be incorrect if the number entered was different than what was shown on the screen.
But the app was able to demonstrate the basics of using a calculator.
“I think it was kind of a breakthrough for me, because I was starting to see a lot of teachers use calculators and to think, well, how can I do this, what can I say to students to make them understand this?” he says of Pause.
“So I think it really set the bar a little higher.
That was a big factor in my thinking.”
The Pause app was one of the first apps developed for use in schools.
But it was not just teachers who used it.
Many computer scientists and engineers began to use it to learn how to design software.
As more people learned how to program, more companies began to offer calculators, including Apple, Google, Microsoft, Intel, HP, and others.
The company that developed Pause would go on to become a major player in the world of software and computer science.
And today, its technology is used in hundreds of thousands of apps across industries, including consumer products, health care, education, banking, and government.
Today, Ehrthart and many other engineers who worked on the Pause calculator are the ones who run it.
“This is the first time I ever got a real chance to do this,” Ehrsays.
“To be in a room full of people, to see how they worked together to create something that they thought was revolutionary and cool.”
It wasn’t until years later that the idea of computers teaching students became more mainstream, but the process wasn’t yet widespread.
Many educators thought the only way to learn computer science was to sit in classrooms and read textbooks, and computers didn’t have that kind of capability.
But in the early 1990s, Microsoft bought Pause for $40,000 and began to work with teachers to put it in classrooms.
“We really thought it would be really helpful to have some real, physical objects that people could use to see and teach students,” says Steve Smith, who was the Pinder program manager at Microsoft Research.
“But we found that students were more interested in seeing and learning the algorithms.
They didn’t want to be doing it in the classroom.”
In 1998, Microsoft launched its first educational app, the Microsoft Access app.
The Microsoft Access was the first app to be made available to students at MIT’s Computer Science and Artificial Intelligence Laboratory, or CSAIL.
In 2003, it launched the CSAILS Learning Center, a new place where students could work with students in real-time to learn from real-life examples.
By that point, Microsoft had also made its first foray into software education, in 2007, when the company created a browser app called Cog.