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Kevin Brookhouser: Renaissance Man of York School

By Maia Thielen, Communications & Marketing Manager
York's Director of Technology & Innovation is a man with a message.
In a shack of a laboratory wedged between two Monterey canneries, there once lived a marine biologist known as the “Renaissance Man of Cannery Row.”  His name was Ed Ricketts, perhaps better known as the real life inspiration behind the character “Doc” in John Steinbeck’s mid-20th century immortalization of the famed Monterey thoroughfare.  A scientist by trade, Ricketts moonlighted as a doctor for local urchins and infantrymen stationed at Fort Ord, wrote dense essays about poetry and philosophy, was known for the records of Gregorian chant which loudly wafted through his open windows, and—of course—for his influence on Steinbeck’s work and perspective.  Ricketts is also recognized as an innovative father of ecology, sounding the alarm on overfishing Pacific sardines to the deaf ears of the canning companies.  

A few miles from Ricketts’ old haunts, up a sun-soaked hillside, tucked away in a [design] lab of his own, dwells Director of Technology & Innovation, Kevin Brookhouser: the Renaissance Man of York School.  This week, Brookhouser is keynoting a conference hosted by the Maine Department of Education at The Computer Science Integrationist Institute in Bethel, Maine, which aims to coach and encourage teachers to incorporate computer science into their curricula.  His speech centers around how computer science has been integrated with service learning here at York, exploring how York students have built real-world solutions for local organizations using breakthrough technologies, and how the Design Thinking Process can be utilized by all students to develop technical mastery while serving practical needs.  

Before he was Director of Technology & Innovation and an international speaker—having keynoted conferences in 27 states and 12 countries including Singapore, Peru, Germany, and Australia at the Sydney Opera House, no less—Brookhouser began his York journey as an English teacher.  Always one to venture beyond the expected boundaries of his proverbial wheelhouse, in the early 2010s he decided to try something new in his classroom.  He started giving his students one day a week to work on independent projects that served a real-world purpose.  It turned out to be a remarkable enterprise, yielding some wildly successful creative endeavors and valuable learning experiences for all.  It was such a stark win that he began to document the project-based learning experiment in a blog and present his findings to other educators.  Eventually, this led to his first book: The 20time Project: How Educators can Launch Google's Formula for Future-Ready Innovation, for what Brookhouser had done was adapt a new and rewarding strategy that companies like Google utilized with their engineers for his high school classroom.

The turn of the ‘10s decade also being the era of Google’s meteoric rise, many of the company’s most popular and lucrative products such as Gmail, Google News, and AdSense were born from an unofficial initiative called the “20% Project.”  Intended to promote innovation and stave off the “innovator’s dilemma”—the resistance a successful corporation may develop to disruptive ideas and risk-taking—as the company grew, employees were given a degree of autonomy in their work, and encouraged to focus on projects not endorsed by management for approximately 20% of their work week.  Google isn’t the only company that loosened the reins to cultivate their employees’ talents.  Hewlett-Packard, manufacturer 3M and Australian software company Atlassian are all proud proponents of the ~20% policy (3M caps their sanctioned time theft at 15%).  For an even more contemporary example of what 20% time has yielded, much of the technology behind the current tsunami of AI language models was developed over 5 years ago by tinkering engineers, as documented in a 2017 Cornell University article, (though not released as a product due to the potential for AI to cannibalize Google Search ad revenue).  

As Renaissance Man Ricketts warned the prosperous Monterey canneries about failing to adapt and over-harvesting their number one commodity to extinction, Brookhouser is on a mission to shift the emphasis of modern education from trite compliance to creativity and innovation.  He outlines the principles of the 20% Time Project as: autonomy, mastery, and purpose (a trio of values author Daniel Pink explores in his book Drive).  He believes, as proven by those mammoth companies, the key to preparing the next generation to tackle the world’s most pressing dilemmas is to give them the tools and freedom to think revolutionarily.  While an initiative like the 20% Project solves the question of the time and space to innovate, it does not necessarily solve for the tools.

The other component of Brookhouser’s keynote speech, now heard by tens of thousands of teachers, is the integration of technology and computer science in the classroom.  Tech is an undeniable fixture in our world and will continue to present both challenges and solutions to future generations.  For those less savvy, it may be tempting to shy away from the daunting task of learning new skill languages, but Brookhouser believes having a strong understanding of technological tools and the fundamentals of computer programming is the solution to looming technological controversies such as “how will AI impact education?”  His second book, Code In Every Class: How all Educators can Teach Programming, is designed to show how computer science and programming are the languages of the future.  He hopes to demonstrate how any teacher, even those with no formal background in computer science,  could incorporate it into their classes.  Brookhouser believes every kid should be given a foundation of technological literacy, because “we don’t know who the next Bill Gates is!”  Even if they are not the next Bill Gates, every student should be exposed to computer science because it opens up a whole new world of intellectual adventure, creative artistry, and community building.

So how has York embodied this concert of technology and project-based learning?  For starters, each year, York students in Brookhouser’s Code + Design Class collaborate with the Monterey County Youth Museum, making repairs and developing new exhibits from scratch, such as this year’s installation about local birds.  Painted by York art students and custom designed, programmed, and fabricated by students in the Design Shop, an array of birds, including a peregrine falcon, California quail, scrub jay, pileated woodpecker, and crow can be found amidst the museum’s “treetops.”  Some years ago—in response to the BBC’s interactive online program illustrating the Syrian refugee crisis—the arts, English, and tech departments at York participated in the creation of a community-relevant interactive experience, tracing a narrative of Guatemalan immigrants coming to California.  Based on hard academic research and real-world stories, the immersive experience employed branching logic of computer science in conjunction with the artistic and linguistic work of York students.  While not uncontroversial, like its BBC counterpart, it was a powerful example of what true cross-collaborative academic work can do.

Ultimately, as the world at large wrings its uncertain hands in the face of major evolution, it is the “Renaissance Men” and their many-faceted minds who see the path forward and are willing to take the risks to forge it.  More importantly however, these figures are guided by inspired curiosity and driven by the hopeful promise of what the future might hold, should the tools we possess be utilized correctly.  What humans like Ricketts and Brookhouser recognize is that the potential is quite literally in our hands.  While society dawdles and debates, those like these two parallel humanistic scientists across the generations will quietly wait, tinkering in their labs with a sly smile…or perhaps not-so-quietly address roomfuls of eager and equally hopeful educators.  And, if we are to take any omen from the canneries of yore, we should listen to the Renaissance Men of Monterey.  

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Phone: 831-372-7338
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Since 1959, York School has created an exceptional college-prep experience for our youth: inspiring them to develop intellectual curiosity; challenging them to create and try new things; and preparing them to be passionate contributors in college and in life.