Netflix Prize winners Bob Bell and Chris Volinsky, statisticians at AT&T Labs Research, told 22 science and technology teachers last week that collaboration was key to winning the prize money. The occasion was a teacher luncheon, wrapping up a three-day conference at NJIT highlighting the use of robots in science, math and technology classes. The NJIT Center for Pre-College Programs hosted the event, thanks to Netflix prize money won by an AT&T research team and donated last year to NJIT by the corporation. Teachers walked away with teaching ideas, plus Lego Mind Storm sets to continue building robots back in their classrooms.
“My kids are going to be so excited that we now have this kit,” said Rich Bettini, a technology teacher at West Essex High School, North Caldwell, who participated in the learning session. Conference organizer Howard Kimmel, director of the NJIT Center, said that robots were a great way to introduce science and math materials in a multi-disciplinary way to students. “When you design a robot you also teach algebra,” he said. “We also love them because they are a hands-on learning tool, something which always enhances learning.”
Bell noted modestly that collaboration was key to winning the prize. “This was a team effort working with people from four different countries around the world.” Even better, people from many different disciplines contributed. “For example, our background was in statistics while others on the team specialized in computer science,” he said. “Different people approached the problem from different angles; we learned from them and they learned from us.” Volinsky noted that the Netflix challenge was ultimately a data mining problem, the same area in which he and Bell conduct research at AT&T.
The teachers enthused about the three-day event. Debra Goldberg, a middle school technology teacher for Lawrence Township Public Schools in Mercer County, said that the conference helped her realize the strength of the connection between science, math, technology and engineering, each building on the other.
“Teamwork matters too,” she said. “None of us have the knowledge to accomplish something. But together we can. Here, look at this robot I made. I did the work myself, but the ultimate product would have been better had we worked as a team.”
She noted too, that team work could also solve problems. “Your mind gets stuck in one solution. You find with other people involved, it’s more likely that you can think better in other directions.”
In 2006, Netflix offered a million-dollar prize to the team that could come up with an algorithm to improve by 10 percent the company’s ability to predict which movies customers would like. From a field of more than 50,000 entrants, two teams completed this goal in June 2009. The group calling itself BellKor’s Pragmatic Chaos — a joint effort by several top competitors, led by statisticians Bell and Volinsky— was declared the winner, since it was the first to achieve a 10.06 percent improvement in movie predicting. AT&T later announced that the Educational Opportunity Program at NJIT would be among the four groups to which AT&T’s share of the prize would be donated.
Participating teachers included Ronald Califano, Bloomfield High School, Bloomfield; Richard Bettini, West Essex Regional High School, Caldwell; David S. Niemierowski, Colts Neck High School, Colts Neck; Bediz P. Efecinar, John E. Dwyer Technical Academy, Elizabeth.
Others were: Christopher R. Hitzel and Susan M. Stobie, Green Hills School, Greendell; Carlos A. Nodarse and Michael P. Liva, Bergen County Academies, Hackensack; Jim Kennedy, Pascack Valley High School, Hillsdale; Debra F. Goldberg, Lawrence Middle School, Lawrenceville; Frederick E. Mason, Linwood Middle School, Linwood; Patricia L, Chilelli, New Brunswick High School, New Brunswick.
Still more were: Samantha A. Sica, Orange Middle School, and Richard A. Hymson and Nancy R. Friedman, Orange High School, Orange; Laila Askri and Paulina M. Grzelaszyk, Rising Star Academy, Union City; Jim McIntyre, James Caldwell High School, West Caldwell; Greg Drennan, Macopin School, West Milford; Marilyn J. Kurz and Denise M. Milam, Williamstown Middle School, Williamstown; Robert J. Morris, Clarkstown High School North, New City, NY.