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Notebook Technology

Smarter grammar?

Students at work with Quill (Handout)


Smarter grammar?

A nonprofit hopes its algorithm-based exams can improve student writing skills

In this age of texting and social media, kids get plenty of opportunities to write. But do they write well? A 2012 Department of Education report found that only 27 percent of 8th- and 12th-grade students were “proficient” or better at writing.

Quill, a 3-year-old nonprofit in New York, thinks a web-based tool can help teachers improve their students’ writing. Quill’s program analyzes student writing exercises, providing corrections and suggestions based on computer algorithms refined by thousands of previous responses.

Targeted at middle schoolers, Quill is designed for use in the classroom. Students using Quill work on exercises in 10- to 15-minute sessions that typically focus on “sentence combining,” a teaching strategy requiring students to take multiple ideas and combine them into a single, grammatically correct sentence.

A Quill exercise might ask the student to combine two short sentences (“Bats have wings. They can fly.”) into one sentence, using one of four conjunctions: and, or, but, or so.

With multiple correct or nearly correct answers to an exercise, Quill prompts students to improve their sentences based on patterns detected in the database of thousands of other users of the service.

“Teachers just don’t have enough time in the day to offer feedback on everything students write,” Quill founder Peter Gault told Fast Company. “Using machine learning to detect these patterns really unlocks a lot of options.”

An estimated 400,000 students have used the Quill writing instruction platform so far. Access to the basic platform is free (including for homeschoolers) and includes more than 300 exercises testing grammar and punctuation. For $80 per year teachers can receive individualized student reports on concept mastery.

Quill is only one of many online grammar teaching programs. Homeschooling parents looking for help should put into search engines “grammar programs for middle school” or similar phrases.

The Umm el-Jimal Project

An ancient reservoir in Umm el-Jimal (The Umm el-Jimal Project)

Old but ingenious

The arid nation of Jordan has become a focal point for international water-technology research and development. And though many of those technologies are cutting-edge, researchers are reviving one water-capturing system that is nearly 2,000 years old.

In 2015, archaeologists and engineers restored the first of a system of reservoirs built by the Arabs around A.D. 90 in the Jordanian town of Umm el-Jimal, according to the journal Nature. A rectangular basalt block basin, the size of four Olympic swimming pools, used canals to collect surface water from winter rains and runoff from mountains in Syria, storing it during the dry summer months. The system was maintained for nearly 800 years until it was abandoned around A.D. 900.

Bert de Vries, an archaeologist at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Mich., currently oversees the restoration project. When completed, the project could provide 10 percent of the water needs for the local population of around 4,000 people in the Umm el-Jimal community. Engineers from Calvin College’s Clean Water Institute have mapped the canals supplying the most runoff water.

“People in antiquity were not backwards; they were clever and thought of a technology we can revive,” de Vries told Nature. —M.C.