Sunday, 19 May 2019

How Can Current and Future Technologies Support our Student's Learning Outcomes in STEM Education

According to the Department of Education and Training, "The Australian Government regards high-quality science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education as critically important for our current and future productivity." (2019). As a STEAM teacher (the A standing for Arts) this stands as something close to my heart. I have worked quite hard to develop a STEAM curriculum from Foundation to Year 4 and enjoy my job thoroughly. I am lucky because I get to see, on a daily basis, the future 'job ready' skills our students so desperately need.

STEM education though, doesn't come without challenges. Timms, Moyle, Weldon and Mitchell (2018) describe three main challenges for STEM learning in Australian schools: Improve students outcomes in STEM; Building the STEM teacher workforce and; Rethinking the STEM curriculum.  While each on its own is a significant challenge, improving student outcomes is something that all teachers strive for (regardless of if it is STEM learning or not) and I am no exception. Improving student outcomes is why I teach. This is supported by the National STEM School Education Strategy who list their first goal as “ensuring all students finish school with strong foundational knowledge of STEM and related skills.” (Education Council, 2015).

With STEM education rating so highly with education policy makers in Australia and abroad, it’s important to understand why this is the case. STEM encourages students to solve new and existing problems in creative ways and gives them meaningful opportunities to think critically and gain confidence. Governments around the world recognise that STEM affects the economy by “supporting innovation, productivity and competitiveness.” (Queensland Curriculum & Assessment Authority, 2018). For countries to remain relevant in future economies, they must invest in STEM education from a young age.

So, how can current and future technologies support our students learning outcomes in STEM education? Let’s begin by talking about the types of technologies that are supporting STEM learning in my context now from Prep (Foundation) through to Year 4:

BlueBots in Action (Summerell, 2018)
Prep: To help our students develop a basic understanding of algorithms and coding, we spend a significant amount of time unpacking what this means through the use of ‘unplugged’ coding activities (activities where we don’t need technology for meaning to be made). This helps students better understand the capabilities of BlueBot robots (simple robots controlled by directional algorithms) before they use them. They begin to develop an understanding that there is more than one way to complete a task and develop resilience by problem solving and improving through practice. This type of play based digital learning helps to build familiarity with both hardware and software (Campbell & Walsh, 2017) and sets students up for future learning.

ScratchJr (Summerell, 2018)
Year 1: My Year 1 students bring their own iPad to school as part of a Bring Your Own Device (BYOD) policy (as do all students up to Year 12). This is the first time they have been allowed to do so, and it’s a great chance for us to delve into more complex forms of code such as what we call, block code. Block code is a simplified, graphical form of coding that children snap together like puzzle pieces. We use an app called ScratchJr which is well liked because of its ability to integrate literacy practices as well as computational thinking. This type of coding builds on the ideas of algorithms, modularity, control structures, representation, hardware/ software, design process and debugging (Bers, 2018).

Year 2: We can already see a supportive sequence developing from Prep onwards with coding activities. Along the way, we have had some introduction to basic design thinking principles and in Year 2 we take this one step further by allowing students a chance to learn to program robots (Dash and Dot) using block code but also designing solutions to make the most of the robots features. We use a simplified Engineering Design Process for our students to follow (Think, Make, Improve) and allow them to find out what they could make to go with their robot to make it personalised to their own interests. We want our students to develop an understanding that they can develop new ideas and solve problems using this process (Barrett, 2016). One of the great examples of this is when a student created their own Basketball court, complete with ring and programmed the Dash robot to shoot a goal.

Dash Shooting Hoops (Summerell, 2018)

Creating a game with Hopscotch (Summerell, 2018)
Year 3: In Year 3, we move on from the simple graphical nature of Scratch Jr’s block code to something a little more complex. We begin using and an app called Hopscotch to help deepen the knowledge they have of computer coding. Both these programmes challenge students to think deeper about what is possible with code and they gain a better understanding of the key ideas described by Bers (2018) above. Students move from using a simplified Engineering Design Process to a Design Thinking phase where they have a larger focus on empathy. Students develop an understanding that “to create meaningful innovations, they need to know their users and care about their lives.” (Stanford d.School, 2011). They are challenged to use this process to create their own computer game or program.

Using Micro:bits for the first time (Summerell, 2019)
Year 4: This is the year our students really get to bring a lot of their prior knowledge of coding, robotics, design thinking and science into practice with Micro:bits. Micro:bits are small, hand held micro-computers that can be programmed with either block code or Python (Micro:bit Educational Foundation, 2019). What is great about these devices is that they allow the students to really stretch their imagination of what is possible with design and code. Students can truly delve in to the design thinking process by looking at real world problems and find possible solutions. Some great examples are students being able to code a Micro:bit with a water sensor to automatically water plants, or to save power by switching off lights when no one is around. It’s no longer about creating fun games (although they can certainly still do that), it’s about the bigger picture. It’s here that we truly see key 21st Century Learning skills such as critical and creative thinking, problem solving and collaboration in action.

What is 21st Century Learning (AITSL, 2012)

What I’ve outlined above is what is happening right now in my context as well as in classes around the world. These technologies aren’t new but are still not commonplace, yet there are exciting things happening in technology and education that will make a big impact in the not so distant future.

One type of technology which I find rather exciting for its possibilities in supporting student learning in STEM education is Mixed Reality (MR). According to Educause’ 2019 Horizon Report Preview (2019), Mixed Reality is an important development in Education Technology with a time-to-adoption of two to three years. Mixed Reality is somewhat of a combination of Virtual Reality (AR) and Augmented Reality (AR) where it incorporates both digital and read world elements. “Mixed Reality allows you to see and immerse yourself in the world around you even as you interact with a virtual environment using your own hands – all without ever removing your headset.” (Intel, n.d.). For a better understanding of where VR, AR and MR relate to each other, see figure 1.
Figure 1 (Tokareva, 2018)
So, how can Mixed Reality support our students learning outcomes in STEM education? What I should really be asking though is, what can’t MR support in learning? In essence, MR has the ability to change learning across all domains, not just STEM based ones. It provides an opportunity for students to be fully immersed in learning and to actually experience and connect with different concepts; it is constructivist learning at its best (ASI Solutions, 2019).

For STEM education, research suggests that Mixed Reality is a “key means of improving learning, skills and outcomes, particularly in disciplines that support the development of practical skills” (Birt & Cowling, 2017). Students are able to put themselves in a situation that allows them to explore, interact, create and visualise in safety. This immersion allows learning to be authentic and memorable. It allows students to be able to connect concepts they might not previously have been able to connect to.

Imagine students being able to look at what is happening inside the human body just by pointing their phone camera at someone. A company called Curiscope has developed a shirt that interacts with a device to do all just this (see figure 2). Students, all of a sudden are no longer learning from a text book or a teacher, they are learning by looking and doing. Not only are students seeing the human body at work, they can also analyse a person’s heart rate at the same time to offer a fully immersive learning experience.

Figure 2. Virtuali-Tee by Curiscope (2019)
In my context, I imagine that Mixed Reality could allow students to take their knowledge of Design Thinking to create solutions digitally and see what they are like in an MR environment. It would allow them a chance to inspect closely what they have created, seek out peer feedback and improve their designs as a result. It would also allow them to be immersed in digital learning whilst also seeing scientific and mathematical concepts in action.

Some other key benefits to Mixed Reality in STEM education can be allowing students to develop a strong understanding of scientific concepts safely, such as chemical reactions (Khan, Johnston, & Ophoff, 2019); visualising geographic conditions that can be difficult to understand such as weather systems, earthquakes and plate tectonics; exploring different planets including conditions humans might face when travelling in outer space; being immersed inside different computers and machines to see how they work at a micro level and seeing coding in action; exploring engineering concepts and how building methods work.

Mixed Reality would also allow learning to become more flexible and equitable (ASI Solutions, 2019). This would allow STEM based learning to be accessible by most people regardless of their situation or abilities. Students that live in remote communities around the world for example, could access these types of technology and not be disadvantaged by location. Students with disabilities could experience situations and environments that they might not normally be able to and likewise, those without disabilities could gain empathy by experiencing situations that others might not be able to experience.

There are likely thousands more benefits that MR can provide our students in improving their STEM learning outcomes and it’s easy to see how education may change as a result of this type of technology. If fully realised, Mixed Reality could very well provide one of the biggest changes to education in modern history. Whether it does or not remains to be seen but it’s certainly an exciting time ahead for our young learners. So, while Mixed Reality will most certainly support student learning outcome in STEM education, I wonder though, are our teacher’s ready for it?


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