10x thinking with Google's D Feher and my computer class

US troops invaded Grenada in 1983, Tennessee Williams left our world that same year, and in 1983 the phrase “I ought to” appeared less frequently than the phrase “I need to” in the published word. Most students armed with a little curiosity and some library skills could discover the first two important facts by sifting through books. The third bit? That requires the use of some serious computers that have scanned, stored, and indexed almost every printed word in the English language.

This week in my computer concepts and programming class at York School, D Feher, a member of the Google Education team, spoke to students about how computers do more than just help people send emails, filter photos, and share cat videos. She discussed how computers and programmers are shaping our future and how they also help us understand our history.

With the help of Google’s Ngram Viewer, linguists and historians can analyze the frequency of words and phrases like “I need to” and “I want to” and just about every published word or phrase. Ever.

Why did “need to” come into fashion in the 80s? Perhaps it’s related to the rise of the “Me” decade. Could the commitment toward one’s duty and dependents connoted in the word “ought” take a back seat to 70s and 80s individualism implied in the word “need”? Maybe. But now we have some hard data on the frequency of these words’ usage to help feed our curiosity.

Access to these kinds of comparative data allows researchers in all academic disciplines to expand their understanding of their fields and our knowledge of everything.

Behind all of this rapid expansion of knowledge? Computer programmers.

Feher encouraged students in CCP to consider what bugs them about the world adults have built around them and asked them to create solutions in a very big way. People at Google are not out there trying to solve problems with incremental improvements. They engage in what’s called 10x thinking.

“If you want cars to run at 50 miles per gallon, fine you can retool your car a little bit,” says Astro Teller, Director of Google X Laboratories. “But if I tell you it has to run on a gallon of gas for 500 miles, you have to start over.”

The creators behind this Ngram tool didn’t just want to add to existing etymology dictionaries. They dreamed up the idea of cataloging every instance of every word  printed in every book since books started getting published. That’s true 10x thinking.

As students talked about their CCP 20time projects, Feher kept coming back at them, asking them to think bigger. She asked them to dismiss the fact that they didn’t yet know how accomplish that big idea and to ignore the probabilities of the project’s success. She asked students to look hard at a challenge that is very likely to fail and to try anyway.

Over the past couple of months, CCP students have been building websites, designing 3D models, and they’re cooking up something big with Ms. Kiest’s environmental science class for a unique interactive experience in York’s Outdoor Lab, 100+ acres of a former army base our school recently acquired. We’re quite excited about it, but we just need to find a way to take this big project ... and make it 10x bigger.