IBM Watson expanding education footprint in Stephenville

Trustees honor Starnes with CORE values medal, Weil as Masonic Teacher of Year

Stephenville ISD trustees unanimously approved the strong recommendation by superintendent Matt Underwood to employ IBM Watson and its industry-leading artificial intelligence as the district-wide classroom management system during Monday's school board meeting at Bond Auditorium. || File photo by The Flash Today


STEPHENVILLE (June 20, 2017) —In healthcare, weather forecasting, financial industries and others, having IBM Watson and its industry-leading artificial intelligence and cognitive technology is a big selling point and indicator of likely success.

Education is now making way for Watson’s almost surreal presence, and Stephenville ISD is getting in on the cutting edge of advanced software superintendent Matt Underwood says will bring individualized learning plans to students in grades 1-12.

“We’re calling it ‘The Hive,’” Underwood said of Watson’s pending presence at Stephenville ISD and having the name fit with the school’s mascots – Yellow Jackets and Honeybees. “It’s simply software, but (its starting date) depends on how quickly we can add all our data. We are shooting for September or October.”

If anything, Watson appears to overachieve with every challenge issued, but Underwood warns it may take time for it to excel consistently in education.

“It’s going to be a long journey. No one should expect the product to be perfect when they first roll it out,” said Underwood, who was pleased when trustees approved a partnership with IBM to have Watson become the primary classroom management system in the district at a cost of $75,000 up front plus $12 per student each year, or roughly $44,000 annually.

The measure passed with one trustee – Cole Gilliam Parks – voting against it. Parks said as an IBM stockholder he is pleased to see the Watson thriving and wants the best for SISD students but simply does not believe such a move is currently in the best financial interests of the district.

The cost certainly wasn’t lost on Underwood, though he feels the value is greater.

 “It’s expensive, especially the up front cost, but that’s a one time fee and I can handle that. It’s recurring fees that can eat you up if you’re not careful, but just twelve dollars per student isn’t bad,” said Underwood. Overall, we feel like the long term value for our students far outweighs the costs we will face as a district.”

Watson’s artificial intelligence is far beyond that of Google and other lead players in the industry, said Underwood, though he believes education will be its most difficult challenge.

“I was joking about that (Monday evening, during the regular monthly meeting of SISD trustees), how we put the doctors, bankers, stock brokers, people like that on an elevated mantle of sorts because those are such specialized jobs. But I truly believe if you look at what it takes putting twenty or thirty very different, unique children in a classroom and trying to get them all to function together and learn the same type material, that education is the most difficult industry of all.”


Underwood first mentioned Watson publicly to trustees during a superintendent’s report in a school board meeting months ago, and from the very start, appeared in favor of the artificial intelligence leader over another – less expensive – classroom management system option that already have proven track records, primarily overseas.

Watson’s far-reaching data implementation abilities will take data from each student and use that to develop more personal, individualized learning plans than ever imaginable for a teacher overseeing 20 or more students in a single classroom, says Underwood.

“Once all the data is collected and uploaded, Watson develops individualized learning plans by tapping into each student’s interests and their competencies. That’s the main thing, after all, is improving competency in every area,” he said. “But it goes further than that, tapping into potential career outlooks for each student, identifying their hopes and dreams and the right learning path to get them there. Once all that comes together and it’s at the click of a button, that’s really something special.”

Watson runs as software with no giant machines added to each campus or in each room. Even better, it’s best used on iPads.

“That makes it the perfect complement to what we’re already doing,” said Underwood, referencing the iChampion digital learning initiative that will place an iPad in the hands of every Stephenville student in grades 3-12 once the high school rollout of devices and accessories is complete “as close as possible to the start of school.”

Underwood said the implementation and to what level at the pre-kindergarten and kindergarten levels at Central Elementary is still being debated by district administrators.

“We may go ahead and pay for the whole district, but as far as the real use of it, probably (grades) 1-12 is where that will come,” he said. “When you’re in Pre-K and K, the parents and the students are all still getting used to the public school system, so it’s one step at a time. We’ll test it out and see how it goes.”

Coppell ISD was among the first district’s to use Watson. It was so new to education, at that point, that Coppell teachers and administrators were providing feedback and seeing IBM make changes and upgrades throughout the school year.

“I don’t know if Coppell was lucky because they really got to influence the direction Watson was taking in education, or if they were unlucky because they were testing it more than they were seeing the full benefits of it,” Underwood said. “We hope to take it from where they left off and expand on the product to really see the benefits to the students.”

Also from Monday’s meeting of SISD trustees:

-A change in iPad accessories was approved unanimously, allowing the purchase of plug in keyboards and otter boxes. Underwood says the new keyboard takes out some of the bluetooth and charging issues and these accessories will be rolled out at Henderson Junior High and Stephenville High School.

-Keith Starnes, district director of maintenance, was awarded a CORE values medial for initiative after he went the extra mile on two occasions – reporting to the high school after hours to restore lights during a playoff baseball game at James T. Young Field, and for his efforts in searching for a tooth lost by a student at Chamberlin Elementary School. Starnes brought heavy machinery to lift the grate off a storm drain where a necklace holding a student’s lost tooth had fallen. Underwood said Starnes removed the grate and jumped into the hole, taking time to search for the necklace and tooth. It was never found, but the superintendent was still impressed, saying, “What great initiative and care for that individual kid…pretty amazing.”

-Georgia Weil of Gilbert Intermediate School was awarded as Masonic Teacher of the Year, just a month after her husband, Casey Weil, received a CORE values medal for excellency after coaching the 2017 Honeybee soccer team to a state title.


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