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Duolingo and the I Can Invent Mindset

To best prepare students for the future, the National Inventors Hall of Fame® believes in cultivating a mindset that both embraces change and empowers problem solving. That’s why all our education programs are designed to develop the I Can Invent® Mindset, combining nine skills and traits that are proven to ignite and nurture creativity.

In a recently published white paper, the final in a three-part series exploring the I Can Invent Mindset, we highlight how design thinking, STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) and collaboration are essential components to sparking ingenuity.

We invite you to read an excerpt below and learn how National Inventors Hall of Fame Inductee Luis von Ahn used design thinking to further the work of CAPTCHA (Completely Automated Public Turning test for telling Computers and Humans Apart) with his creation of reCAPTCHA, and later develop the language learning platform Duolingo.


How Luis von Ahn Embraced Design Thinking

Born in Guatemala City, Guatemala, von Ahn has always had a natural curiosity for how things worked. His curiosity grew as he spent time during his childhood exploring the machines in a candy-making factory owned by his mother’s family.

“I grew up in a country where inventors normally don’t grow up,” said von Ahn in an interview with the National Inventors Hall of Fame. “I think that has actually shaped a lot of things. A lot of the ways in which I think, and a lot of the projects that I decide to work on.”

When he reached college age, von Ahn traveled to the United States to study at Duke University, where he graduated with a bachelor’s degree in mathematics in 2000. He then became a graduate researcher at Carnegie Mellon University, earning master’s and doctorate degrees in computer science in 2003 and 2005, respectively.

During his first year at Carnegie Mellon, von Ahn attended a talk by the chief scientist at Yahoo, who spoke about 10 problems the company currently did not know how to solve. One of these problems caught von Ahn’s attention: identifying and stopping computer programs from stealing users’ account information.

“It occurred to us, one way in which we could solve this is we could distinguish whether the thing that’s getting the account is a human or computer,” von Ahn said.

This became the initial inspiration for CAPTCHA, followed by reCAPTCHA’s debut in 2007. Because both tests remain difficult for computer programs, or bots, to accurately complete, they represent reliable ways to prevent bots from causing harm online. For the end user, this has created a safer online experience and less spam.

By developing reCAPTCHA, a more advanced version of CAPTCHA that prompts users to decode a series of letters and numbers, von Ahn and his team were able to not only develop an effective way to prevent harmful spam but also aid in the digitization of books for archival purposes.

After selling reCAPTCHA to Google in 2009, von Ahn was inspired to create a way to provide equitable access to learning. In 2011, he co-founded Duolingo.

By making Duolingo’s online learning platform free, adding gamification elements and creating an intuitive, user-centric experience, Duolingo’s app has become the world’s most popular language learning app, with over 75 million monthly active users.

“Certainly, Duolingo is very influenced by where I’m from,” von Ahn said. “The reason I am so interested in being able to give the education away for free is because I grew up in such a poor country, where I saw that people who don’t have access to education barely learn how to read and write, and therefore never make a lot of money. Whereas people who have money can get themselves a really good education and therefore continue making a lot of money. So, [Duolingo] was very influenced by that.”


Read the Full White Paper Today

To read the full white paper in its entirely, we invite you to download it for free today!

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