Feature Story

STEM Education Technology Trends: Evolving Classrooms

by Melissa Jun Rowley

A nationwide push for creating STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) learning opportunities through technology is taking center stage. Learn more about what it looks like and how students are benefiting.

Emotional management tested through technology, aerospace flight simulations, teachers beamed into classrooms across the country – it all sounds like something taking place in a galaxy far, far away. However, it's happening right here on planet Earth. It's happening in the name of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering & Mathematics) education, and it's happening just in the nick of time.

U.S. students have been falling behind their international peers in STEM, and this poses a serious threat to America's competitive spirit and prosperity. In addition to this, STEM fields offer a smorgasbord of career opportunities that are ripe for the taking. According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, jobs in STEM are predicted to increase 17 percent by 2018, compared to 9.8 percent growth in non-STEM-related occupations.  That's why a nationwide push for creating STEM learning opportunities through technology is taking center stage.

In today's hyper-connected, non-stop networked atmosphere, kids create, share, and consume content digitally at unprecedented rates. They build their own websites. They make movies on their phones, and they design their own interactive games. However, there is a disconnect between how they're absorbing information recreationally and socially, and how they're learning in school. Textbook learning is no longer enough. Fortunately, video games and virtual learning communities are increasingly being experimented with in the academic world to foster STEM skills for the next generation, a primary goal of the STEM education initiative Change The Equation.

"There was a time not long ago when gaming advocates were swimming upstream against the distrust of those who see video games as the destructive drug of choice for disaffected teenagers and burnouts," said Change The Equation CEO Linda P. Rosen. "That is rapidly changing as more foundations, business leaders and even government leaders, including President Obama, see games as a means of getting students more engaged in substantive STEM learning."

According to the semi-annual report Game Changer: Investing in Digital Play to Advance Children's Learning and Health, video games can help develop STEM skills and systems thinking. There is also evidence that making video games cultivate STEM learning. Game-based learning product publisher, e-Line Ventures, empowers kids to do just that. For the last two years, the company has presented the National STEM Video Game Challenge, which awards students in middle school, high school, and college for developing educational games.

While many kids are naturally engrossed in games, designing them to have the most significant impact in the classroom is a tall task.

The nonprofit research and outreach organization, GameDesk, rises to the occasion. With key collaborative efforts from leaders in academia, school systems, and the entertainment industry, GameDesk is building a library of full-fledge STEM gaming curriculum for students in sixth thru 12th grade.

"For students to develop meaning and sustained STEM interest, they must develop true conceptual understanding of scientific phenomena," shared GameDesk CEO Lucien Vattel. "They must truly understand and know the material in order to effectively engage with it. Our games offer a dynamic model that allows students to view and interact with reality in ways that are not possible in the everyday human experience."

One of the ways GameDesk does this is through embodiment, which generates a learning experience coupled with physical action. For example, in an embodied implementation on "aerodynamics," using the Microsoft Kinect and Smallab system, students become birds. The game reveals in invisible forces at play. Through this experience, kids begin to "feel" how the vectors, air, wing rotation, and flapping all work together.

GameDesk's emotion management game Dojo shows players how breathing affects their bodies, and will only let them proceed when they're in a place of calm.

Vattel says, "These embodied experiences offer group and classroom options, whereby teachers can more effectively facilitate learning and integrate the activities with group discussion and work."

Ensuring that teachers adopt new ways of integrating technology is crucial when it comes to STEM education. "Technology has the potential to disrupt traditional ways of doing things and engage students in much more authentic, immediate, and hands-on STEM learning experience," shared Rosen. "Yet it will do none of these things if we see it as a mere add-on to the traditional classroom, if we fail to train teachers and students in their use, if we don't link them closely to the wave of national reforms to standards, curriculum and assessment, etc. All too often, technology has, at best, merely supported old, ineffective ways of doing things."

Online lesson content from video networks, such as TED-Ed, the Khan Academy, and MITx are making STEM education mobile and accessible inside and outside of school. These platforms are also allowing students to work at their own pace. Khan's vision for the classroom is to create collaborative learning spaces where students solve problems together, while the teacher focuses on their individual needs, using real-time metrics. In just a few short years, the Khan videos have racked up hundreds of millions of views. (See Side Bar for More Exmaples)

Rosen says that some experts believe this online content can help teachers "flip" lecture and homework, meaning students will watch lectures at home, and then teachers will help them one-on-one with their assignments in class.  "Such ‘flipping' could (in time) herald a complete transformation of teachers' roles. A small cadre of "star" teachers could be beamed into classrooms across the country and be seen by thousands or even millions of students."

The ability to enable students to learn STEM skills in immersive environments and through digital connectivity is more than a worthy experiment. It's crucial to keeping young people inspired and motivated, and to giving them the keys for putting the U.S. back at the forefront of innovation.

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