Why do gadgets replace specialized equipment in STEM classrooms? 


Picture: PureSolution_jpeg

How has classroom equipment evolved? Specialized equipment has been an essential part of education processes for ages. Dummy swords in medieval ages, wooden toys, later dice, globes, maps had become essential part of learning and training. When the classroom emerged as a learning environment, some of its physical equipment became symbolic, e.g. the book, pen, map, triangle, ruler, etc. Well, depending on the period, all those items were used primarily to visualize concepts or actions that were somehow challenging to perceive, understand, grasp immediately.

In this very article I would like to emphasize on science and technology education in and out of the classroom. Let’s say that the classroom itself is a learning environment where learners go through a series of activities, processes, to meet a learning objective. If that is so, a classroom would utilize all the tools available to make learning process successful.

Recently, we are witnessing a technological revolution; more than that – it has been a communications revolution and there is already so much written and said about it, that this statement is already a cliché. Never mind the cliché, the revolution is a fact and we have to live with it. This dynamic technological change has brought a series of new classroom tools, some of them landing directly at the at the class-desk. There are now web-cameras acting like traditional microscopes; Data-logging devices that visualize data in real time; those deices can do more than simple measurements: one can see in real time a graph of temperature, pressure, force or other physical, chemical or biological process measurable. Isn’t it that just great? To be able to represent all the scientific data, coming from a process to your students? Classroom equipment producers offer a whole range of products varying from open-flame thermometers to Geiger-Muller counters. Equipment that was once available to the NASA’s Apollo program team and the special military units is now available in the classroom. Well, that’s a change, isn’t it?

Being so excited writing this article I decided to check the website of one of the biggest data-logger solutions – Einstein systems I found a book of experiments in Physics, Chemistry, Biology and some cross-curriculum areas like ecology and environment, energy and bird behavior. That is just great, the producer offers also guidelines to users. Going a step towards the 21st century STEM education – lessons are meant to be a discovery, teaching, to be student centered, flexible and open process. Somehow I see those experiment books and data-logging solutions distant from 21st century teaching. Isn’t that fancy electronic data logging solution just a new tool to use in an old setup? Yes, this might be a bit extreme, but I couldn’t find nothing revolutionary in the data logging solutions implementation. Yes, of course it is all about methods and the teachers’ ideas.

My point here: I am saying that 21st century teaching would require 21st century tools. Those are tools that are more than replacements of the traditional map, globe, book. Currently there is a hype of gadgets, most of them related to real life challenges, adequate to students’ interests and yet very much tied-in to STEM. Why not checking Makey Makey website and the resources section? There’s a range of lesson plans that seemed to me a way more intriguing than those coming from the data logging solution provider. http://makeymakey.com/lessons/. I will go further with that – yesterday I followed a Facebook thread where the Scientix Ambassadors from Sweden were boasting to each other who got more Makey Makeys. Ambassadors from UK, Spain and Bulgaria also commented and joined a discussion. To be honest, I did not witness such a discussion related to interactive whiteboards, data loggers or whatever other type of equipment before. Looks like gadgets are magnets for STEM teachers as much as they are magnet for students. Gadgets are attractive!

Gadgets are social! Teaching STEM in 2016 is so social! Take a look at the Raspberry PI weather station project – that is far more than a data logging, and a way cheaper as well. Or the BBC, Samsung and Microsoft’s MicroBIt?

To sum up – following the SAMR model in teaching (and I find it applicable in STE(A)M) it’s always better to go for Redefinition rather than a substitution, augmentation or modification. What gadgets can do better than “sophisticated” and specialized equipment is redefinition. A redefinition of the learning process and the way we introduce our content. I am not saying students should not use real-life and real-time data, I am saying they are smart enough to understand the data and make a practical use of it. And Experimenting with a digital thermometer may be interesting for a slice of the lesson, but why but why not high-five to the robotic hand? https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6OlvgaTh4DM

Article written by: Alexander Angelov, Scientix Deputy Ambassador

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