STEM Picks Up Speed
The use of authentic scenarios to teach abstract concepts
- By Jennifer Demski
SCOTT ANDERSON WANTS TO send your fifth-graders
to the moon.
As the instructional technology coordinator for the
NASA Digital Learning Network at the Marshall
Space Flight Center in Huntsville, AL, Anderson regularly
conducts videoconferences with middle school
students across the country in the hopes of raising
their interest in the science, technology, engineering,
and mathematics professions that keep NASA running.
According to Anderson, the last boom in STEM
careers happened after the first moon landing in
1969, and the agency needs an infusion of youth.
"Today, just under half of the scientists and engineers
at NASA could retire if they wanted to," he says.
A SOUND SOLUTION Inside
blends the real and
students can hear the
between their movement
principle of acceleration.
"NASA wants to go back to the moon around 2020. It turns
out the middle school students-- that's right around the time
they'll be graduating from college. We conduct these videoconferences
to motivate kids to want to work here someday, to
help us get back to the moon and then go on to Mars. When
they graduate from college, if they graduate in a STEM field,
there will be a place for them at NASA."
It's an exciting prospect, but one that will be hard to fulfill
as long as students continue to find
the subjects that lead to those NASA
careers less and less appealing.
Algebra, geometry, earth science,
physics-- these require patience and
perseverance to master. That kind of
academic stamina is hard to advertise
to kids nurtured on the instant
engagement and gratification of modern
digital technology. And there's
little hope they'll be sustained by an intrinsic interest in math
and science; they have to be shown how they can apply the material
to their own lives. This is leading educators away from
textbooks to search for teaching solutions that use real-world,
interactive scenarios to engage students in STEM learning.
"The kids who are coming through school now,
if you can't give them a real-world
connection to what they're learning,
they turn off. They're not with you."
"The kids who are coming through school now, if you can't
give them a real-world connection to what they're learning,
they turn off," says Helen Gooch, instructional technology
coordinator for the Clarksville-Montgomery County School
System in Tennessee. "If they can't see how it applies to them,
how they're going to use it-- if you can't explain to them why
they need to learn the principals of these subjects, you don't
have them. They're not with you."
Ed Fields knows what teachers are up against. "Today's middle
school students have never not known the internet," says Fields,
CEO and founder of HotChalk, a provider of online K-12
learning resources. "The vast majority of them have a Sony
PlayStation or a Wii or an Xbox in their homes. And the amount
of media that's focused on them is mind-blowing when you
think about Nickelodeon, the Disney Channel, the Cartoon
Network, and all the other content that's coming their way."
To compete with this maze of distraction, Fields created
HotChalk's free online video series, Off-Road Algebra. By
demonstrating an unexpected link between extreme sports and
algebra, Off-Road Algebra is one of those rare educational
products that may actually succeed in making math cool.
An avid motocross enthusiast, Fields worked with a group of
professional motocross racers and a video crew to create this
collection of 30 online videos that teach algebra as it applies
to the sport of motocross. The videos have a distinctly
YouTube look, and feature a group of riders on a desert course
encountering various problems that require students to use
algebra to solve-- such as ensuring that a bike's gas tank will
hold enough fuel for a long race-- before the race can advance.
The teacher can pause the video while the students work out
a problem, and then when the video resumes, the racer gives
the answer and explains how it was solved.
Fields recruited Jason Dyer, a math teacher at Pueblo Magnet
High School in Tucson, AZ, and creator of "The Number
Warrior" math blog, to devise the algebra problems that are
shown in the videos. Dyer says the weakness of textbook-based
word problems that attempt to present real-life applications is
that they require students to make too great a leap to see how the
math and the real-world scenario are linked. "With this series,
I was really focused on the integration," Fields says. "I came
to it with the philosophy that I would be teaching both about
the motocross racing and the math so that they would truly be
Dyer focused the videos on algebraic principals that exist
naturally in motocross, such as the formula for velocity.
"‘Velocity equals distance divided by time' is a fundamental
formula for any kind of motion," he explains. "The ramifications
of it go all the way through calculus, yet it's also essential to
motocross. I could have done the entire series just on that
principal as it applies to racing."
Although the Off-Road Algebra series just launched in
September, Fields says his website has already seen about
100,000 downloads of the free videos, which he thinks indicates
a strong interest in finding new ways to engage students
in STEM subject matter.
Helen Gooch has just begun introducing Off-Road Algebra
in her district. "When my math consultant and I looked at this
series," she says, "we thought, ‘How could we not want to use
this?' It puts that relevance and that real-world application
into what it is we're trying to get the students to learn."
Supplementing With Software
Also aimed at sparking students' interest in math, Brainingcamp
offers a series of online math-based game modules meant
to supplement traditional lessons. The games use real-life
scenarios that students manipulate using math principles.
"The brain works best when students can find real-world
connections," says Dan Harris, CEO of Brainingcamp. "Without
real-world connections, math is just formulas and equations
that are difficult to understand and often boring."
The software currently features six units that each cover
various algebra and geometry principles. For example, in one
unit, students develop a strategy to board passengers onto a plane
as quickly as possible, requiring them to use probability, data
analysis, and problem-solving skills. The other units include planting a forest to offset carbon emissions; designing
a mountain race course for bicyclists; programming
a scanner in a package-sorting facility to sort boxes
by their shapes; planning a flight route; and growing
a Segway polo league into a sports empire.
You Don't Have to Be a Rocket Scientist
NASA VIDEOCONFERENCES INFORM STUDENTS ABOUT
THE VARIETY OF CAREERS THE AGENCY OFFERS.
IN THE GREAT MAJORITY of the educational videoconferencing services
that NASA offers to K-12 schools, Scott Anderson, the instructional
technology coordinator for the agency's Digital Learning Network at the Marshall Space Flight Center in Huntsville,
AL, focuses on the variety of science, technology, engineering, and math
careers available at the agency. In fact, one of Anderson's most popular
videoconferences is NASA Careers, where his main goal is to dispel the
myth that the only career path offered at NASA involves flying into orbit.
"If I were to walk into a mall and ask 100 people to name a career at
NASA," he says, "the majority would say astronaut. Here at the Marshall
Space Center alone we've got close to 5,000 engineers and scientists."
While talking with students during the NASA Careers videoconference,
Anderson displays a chart of more than 40 different professions they can
find at NASA, and asks the students which ones look interesting to them.
Many of the students are caught by surprise. "They wonder why NASA
needs veterinarians," Anderson says. "Well, when we travel to space we often
have experiments that we send along, oftentimes with insects or animals. So
we need veterinarians on staff to make sure that the experiments are safe,
and that we're going to get relevant data."
Melanie Turner, the instructional technology specialist for Colquitt
County Schools in Moultrie, GA, recently offered the NASA Careers
videoconference to her district's fifth-graders as a part of their Career Day.
"The idea was to expose them to more than just the typical doctor, lawyer,
teacher-type careers," Turner says. Mission accomplished: Her students
learned about careers at NASA in scuba diving, nursing, and, of course,
RaeAnn Pruitt, a middle school math teacher at
Mineola Middle School in Mineola, TX, has been
supplementing her lessons with the software
for more than a year now. Pruitt used the flightplanning
unit as a review tool for her eighth-grade
students as they prepared for their year-end state
assessment. "It worked really well because we did
the module together," she says, "and it covered so
many principles of the curriculum that I was able
to see where they were struggling. I have no doubt
it helped them with their test."
The authentic contexts in which the problem
solving is done let students see the real effects of
those math principles that had before only been
distant abstractions to them. For example, in the
flight-planning module, students are tasked with
creating a flight route that minimizes time and
delay. They discover how a faulty measurement or,
perhaps, an incorrect fraction causes a plane to
travel less efficiently.
"It gives the principles some relevance," Pruitt
says. "We can talk about adding fractions or adding
decimals, but to actually see it in action really
helps clarify those objectives. Add to that the fact
that so many of these students are so used to
watching things on their computer-- when they
can see it on their school computers, it really interests
them more. The technology is key to keeping
Sometimes real-world scenarios need a blend of
the virtual to really make science come alive for
students. A major step toward fully interactive educational
technology has taken place by means of a
partnership between researchers at Arizona State
University and a team of forward-thinking teachers
at Coronado High School in Scottsdale, AZ.
David Birchfield, assistant professor in ASU's
Arts, Media, and Engineering program-- a collaboration
between the university's college of the arts
and its school of engineering-- heads a team of
researchers across a range of disciplines, including
psychology, computer science, and education, that
has developed an innovative learning platform
called the Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab,
or SMALLab. The lab requires students to interact
directly with elements of both the physical and virtual
worlds, what the researchers term a "mixed-reality"
environment. The SMALLab platform consists of a 15-foot-by-15-foot interactive
floor mat, a projector aimed at the
mat, surround sound speakers,
and two "glowballs"-- illuminated
orbs that the students maneuver from point to point within the
darkened space on the mat. A computer terminal linked to the
platform collects information from sensors and the glowballs
as the students move within the space, allowing the virtual
objects that are part of whatever scenario is mounted on the
mat-- such as an assortment of fossils and geological matter--
to react to the students' movement in real time.
To watch high school students and teachers describe
their experiences with the SMALLab environment, visit here.
SMALLab was designed in accordance with recent studies
in the learning sciences regarding how students learn, especially
in the context of STEM-based subjects, which stress the
ideas of embodiment, collaboration, and multimodality-- the
theory that concepts can be understood through different
kinds of representations.
"An algebraic equation is one type of representation of a
physics phenomenon," Birchfield explains. "A graph is another
kind of representation. A diagram is another. There's a lot of
evidence to show that seeing those different representations is
valuable to students. Much of what we're trying to do in
SMALLab is consider that there can also be sonic representations.
Students can close their eyes, walk through the SMALLab
space, and hear the relationship between their movement and
the concept of acceleration."
Birchfield says the lab combines the best of computer-based
simulation learning-- where, for example, a student can explore
chemistry at a molecular level, or simulate the effects of an
earthquake in different environments-- with the active, collaborative,
hands-on experiments of a science lab. "The crux of what
we're trying to do is mix students' real-world experiences with
these digital experiences into one cohesive learning experience,"
Birchfield says. "You're physically present in this space, you're
using digital media tools where they're appropriate, but it's a
mix between the digital and physical environments."
The SMALLab setup is in its second year of use at Coronado
High School. Science teachers Dan Sweeney and Norm Colling
have both used the lab to enhance their lessons during that time,
and also have taken part in weekly meetings with ASU staff to
design and develop new interactive scenarios for the platform.
Students in Sweeney's ninth-grade earth science classes have
shaken Wii remotes to generate earthquakes and used the glowballs
to "pick up" fossils from the interactive mat and "place
them" with the correct layer and type of sedimentary rock.
"SMALLab gets everyone involved," Sweeney says, "and
when using it, students tend to make connections that they
otherwise wouldn't have made."
Colling, a physics teacher, has worked with Birchfield to
create a scenario for SMALLab that
teaches principles such as constant
velocity. As the students move
through the space with the glowballs,
their movements are graphed and projected on the mat.
Conversely, students are shown a "position vs. time" graph, and
then have to duplicate the movement depicted by the graph. A
metronome speeds up or slows down in step with the velocity
of their motions. Meanwhile, students situated outside the
platform are busy calculating that velocity as it rises and drops.
"If your scenario's going to be valuable and different than
show-and-tell," Colling says, "everybody's got to be involved."
Although there are only three SMALLab platforms now
in use-- the Coronado High setup, the original installation at
ASU, and a new installation at New York City's Institute of
Play-- Birchfield hopes that the lab will soon become a standard
tool in STEM teaching. "A lot of the work that we're doing
right now is to demonstrate that a mixed-reality platform
is viable in a mainstream environment," he says. "We're in
regular physics and science classrooms at Coronado. Once we
build up the foundational tools and the infrastructure, we'd
like to see SMALLabs in classrooms across the country."
The expansion of SMALLabs nationwide could do much
toward creating new interest in math and science. Colling says
as a result of having his students work with the lab, he has
noticed an increase in their enthusiasm for science and an
improvement in their reasoning skills. "If they have to work
through problems, then they're going to become good at working
through problems," he says. "That's going to be something
that they can apply throughout their educational experiences
and their real-life experiences. It's going to affect all aspects
of their lives."
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