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STEM Education: There's an App for That
By John Freeman Posted:May 11, 2014 0 Comments
At the end of April, Washington, D. C. hosted the U. S. News Stem Solutions Conference. The goal of this conference was to bring together academic leaders from around the country to help them share ideas and best practices for how to meet the STEM needs of today's students and tomorrow's workforce. One problem area that was exposed is the disconnect between classroom theory and needed workplace skills. As Brian Fitzgerald, chairman of the Business-Higher Education Forum, put it, "there are virtually no programs in undergraduate education" in data science, mobile and cloud technology, cyber-security, and numerous other high growth STEM fields. Further, the number of students pursuing these graduate degree programs is not large enough to meet expected demand. Many assume that the primary culprit behind this is an educational system that saps student's interest in STEM in favor of theory. However, many education advocates are now seeking a new path for STEM education that better engages students through both improved teaching methods and increased use of modern educational technology.

One problem area is the lecture-style classroom. The lecture has numerous benefits to college administrators. They are cheap to produce because it only takes one lecturer to talk to dozens or hundreds of students. They teach students fundamentals that will be necessary for later research. They have a centuries-long track record of training academics and professionals. However, this hallmark of collegiate learning may be one of the primary reasons students are fleeing STEM subjects. The Association of American Universities described the current approach to STEM education as little more than talking at students and giving them tests. They are now advocating for a different style of teaching that encourages active learning, group work, and exposing students to research from the beginning of their studies. Universities that have mixed these methods with teacher incentives to help motivate change have been able to massively increase retention, in some cases up to 45 percent. By keeping more students engaged in the STEM education pipeline in undergraduate education, it helps provide opportunities for more students to seek higher education in needed specialized fields.

However, the college classroom is not the only place to rely on lectures and other styles of rote teaching. Middle schools and high schools have increasingly relied on lectures and more formulaic styles of teaching as class sizes have ballooned and educational resources have been spread thin. In some places, though, they are breaking the mold by utilizing new technologies that help expand the STEM classroom beyond traditional limitations. One particularly exciting development is the rise of virtual laboratories. Typically hosted by universities, these programs allow students to participate in experiments from a distance while learning about chemistry, biology, and a plethora of other subjects. While it does remove a bit of the hands-on experience that experiments can provide, virtual labs have several benefits over in-class experiments. First, they allow every student the chance to interact with more hands-on learning opportunities instead of relegating experiments to groups or teacher-led demonstrations. Second, it lets students fail and try again. In-class experiments typically have one shot to get correct; virtual labs can be restarted numerous times so that students can master concepts. Finally, virtual labs are not subject to the school's bells. Virtual labs can be used from any computer that has an Internet connection, so they can be used as homework, enrichment activities, or in after-school environments. This is just one technology that is helping to boost student interest through greater hands-on learning.

Another exciting move inside the STEM classroom is the increasing prevalence of mobile devices in computing. Through a combination of STEM-based apps, instructional videos, and a variety of other forms of new media, technology offers a valuable tool for furthering student knowledge of STEM subjects and enriching classroom education through both interactive and more intensive learning. Further, the increased use of mobile technologies in the classroom has the additional benefit of untethering technology from the classroom wall. Because of this, students can take technology with them as they use hands-on and field learning to increase their store of knowledge. As they engage more directly with STEM subjects, mobile technology can help provide context and information on a "just-in-time" basis. In short, instead of students having to meld to the shape of the classroom, mobile technology is helping the classroom become more responsive to each student's needs.

These are just some of the new ideas that are seeking to change the way that students interact with STEM subjects. Perhaps through a more engaging style of education, a larger number of students will become engrossed in STEM subjects. If that becomes the case, then the STEM crisis will never need to be repeated. If these advancements have a truly positive impact on the STEM classroom, then maybe it will turn the table on tomorrow's adults. Instead of being unable to help with math or science because they were not good at those subjects in school, tomorrow's parents will eagerly jump in to assist because these subjects were an engaging, engrossing part of education during their formative years. It is a bold idea, but with these new tools and ideas, today's STEM education leaders are up for the challenge.