4 Enhancing STEM Learning Through Technology

Jibran Vahidy

jibran.vahidy@uoit.net

Ontario Tech University

Abstract

STEM education provides students an opportunity to develop increasingly important skills, such as complex problem solving, communication, and collaboration. There are a variety of ways in which learning technologies influence student’s learning and engagement within STEM subjects. This chapter presents the different kinds of skills and practices afforded by different technologies (i.e. online interactive learning, simulation, augmented and virtual reality, and digital gaming) and the extent to which they engage students in thinking through complex concepts to develop a deep knowledge of science, technology, engineering, and math. The integration and effective use of technology is also vital to enhance Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math (STEM) learning.

Keywords: Augmented Reality (AR), Digital Gaming, Online Interactive Learning, STEM, Simulation, Virtual Reality (VR)

Introduction

The term “STEM education” refers to teaching and learning in the fields of Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics; typically including educational activities across all grade levels, from pre-school to post-doctorate, and in both formal and informal classroom settings (Gonzalez & Kuenzi, 2012). Policymakers and educational researchers worldwide, increasingly focus on ensuring student’s persistence and success in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) (Skinner, Saxton, Currie & Shusterman, 2017) and student’s preparation for the labour market in which STEM takes a prominent place (World Economic Forum, 2017). However, many education systems today do not engage students adequately as they are based on educational models introduced over a century ago. For instance, most STEM education in primary and secondary schools focuses on theory rather than on application and experiential learning and is taught in a way that reinforces a disconnect between the different STEM disciplines (Nadelson & Seifert, 2017; WEF, 2017). As engaging students in STEM is an urgent need in society, it is important to investigate how technological advancements can foster and promote student engagement towards STEM. This chapter explores research specific to enhancing STEM learning through technology.

Background Information

The integration of technology in teaching and learning is vital to improving curriculum and student outcomes. Not only can technology facilitate creative, flexible and purposeful thinking and knowledge construction within the classroom, it also extends the “reach” of educational opportunities for students. With the rapid development of information and communication technology, educators and researchers increasingly highlight the potential merits of using educational technology to improve STEM learning outcomes. In this chapter, we examine the role of educational technologies, such as online interactive learning environments, simulation, augmented reality (AR), virtual reality (VR), and digital gaming, in STEM education.  The benefits of such technologies in STEM subjects are noted throughout the literature. The implementation of their use is evolving. Some of the hindrances to their incorporation into the total spectrum of best practices for learning are: the cost of the technology, thus insufficient hardware and software, the unwillingness of some educators to try new pedagogical techniques, and the lack of educator training (Hyatt et al., 2013).

Online Interactive Learning

Online learning has become an instrumental way to broaden STEM education’s reach and deepen student’s understanding. The STEM education community, where innovation and hands-on learning experiences are critical, often finds itself at the exciting crossroads of traditional and online learning (Bossi 2018). As online learning continues to change the face of education, those of us at this intersection have a tremendous opportunity to embrace digital advancements and, ultimately, enhance traditional classroom environments and hands-on programs for our students. Technology companies like Google have played an integral part in making online learning part of traditional K-12 classrooms. More than 10 years ago, Google introduced its online learning platform, G Suite for Education, to provide students and teachers a simple and secure way to share documents and other innovative capabilities (Bossi 2018). Their easy-to-use technology has completely changed the way teachers and students communicate and collaborate with each other.

Simulation

Simulation tools support STEM learning by providing opportunities to manipulate both virtual and actual environments. Students are able to develop their understanding of STEM subjects and improve the skills that are fundamental to the discipline. Simulation is usually constructed with an underlying model that is based on some real-world behavior or natural/scientific phenomena such as models of the ecosystem or simulated animal dissection (Renken et al., 2016). In the STEM field, real equipment can be difficult to obtain, so simulations enable students to experience phenomena they normally would not be able to experience firsthand. For example, simulations can take the place of laboratory equipment that might be too expensive or dangerous to have in a school.

Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality

The future of learning and workplace training is connected to immersive learning technology, i.e. augmented and virtual reality. As technology becomes more ubiquitous and affordable, several types of immersive tech or extended reality (xR) are becoming accessible to educators and companies (Cariker 2018). Augmented reality, or AR, is a type of software used on a smart device, such as a tablet, smart eyeglass or smartphone to project digital items, such as a moving cartoon drawing, onto the real image produced by the camera. Virtual reality, or VR, takes this process a set further. Instead of projecting onto a real environment, VR creates an entirely new digital environment that can be viewed in 360 degrees (Cariker 2018). Educators know that the learning process should be all about motivation and interaction. By incorporating AR and VR content into lessons, teachers can involve students in the process as well as give them a wider understanding of a particular topic.

Gaming

Gaming, as an instructional tool, enables educators to create participatory learning activities, assess understanding of complex and ill-formed situations, facilitate critical thinking and problem-solving capabilities, and ensure active engagement across the learning continuum for all students (Raupp 2018). The benefits of using games in STEM areas are twofold. First, gaming is highly engaging, so teachers and parents can harness kid’s interest and steer it toward subject-based learning. Second, video games require a tremendous amount of STEM knowledge to develop, which makes them a natural hook for teaching coding and other computer skills (Raupp 2018). Well-designed video games put the player in control, offer incremental levels of difficulty, provide instant and ongoing feedback, and create community by allowing for multiplayer participation. Self-directed exploration and pacing, regular feedback and collaborative problem solving are already part of effective teaching and learning.

Applications

The integration and effective use of technology has been shown to enhance STEM learning and student success. The focus of this section is how online interactive learning, simulation, augmented reality, virtual reality, and gaming can be utilized for instructional purposes, specifically in the STEM areas (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics).

Online Interactive Learning

New pedagogy involves helping students find purpose, passion, and experimental doing in a domain that strokes their desire to learn and keep on learning (Fullan, 2013, p. 4). Online interactive learning tools such as G Suite and Google Classroom can help to pave the way for active learning allowing students to share valuable information, extract key ideas from new material, and organize a mental framework. These collaborative tools also align with STEM education, which focuses on addressing real problems, intellectual risk-taking and trial-and-error problem-solving, collaboration, and intrinsic motivation. These interactive tools allow teachers to partner with students in the learning process, which is critical for problem-based and student-centered learning.

Google for Education shareable devices and collaborative tools help teachers prepare students with new, more engaging ways to learn the information and skills they need to succeed. Today, more than 130 million students and teachers are using G Suite and Google Classroom for Education (Google Education, 2019). With G Suite Education and Classroom, teachers and students can work independently or collaboratively, and on any device. Google Drive is the hub of an individual user’s activity in G Suite allows users to view, organize, and share all sorts of files stored online from almost anywhere with internet access. This includes mobile computing devices such as phones and tablets. Google Docs is a word processor that focuses on reliability, simplicity, and collaboration (Google Docs, 2019). The real power of Google Docs is the ability for multiple participants to work on a file simultaneously. Multiple coauthors of the document can make changes to different sections of a file at the same time. Google Classroom acts as the hub of activity for a class or school. In the Google Classroom, teachers have the ability to create virtual “classes” of students, and they can distribute assignments and key materials to all students in a particular class (Google Classroom, 2019). Students can submit their work through the Google Classroom portal, and teachers can access, grade, make comments in real-time, and even add annotations using the mobile app.

Simulation

Simulations can be used to explore phenomena that occur over long or extremely short periods in a way that can easily fit into a class. It is believed that using simulations in the classroom can help improve learning. Several literature reviews (Scalise et al., 2011; Smetana & Bell, 2012) have examined whether and how simulations aid the improvement of student learning. Today, simulation is used extensively in classroom settings to train doctors, civil and military, and armed forces personnel for critical, unusual life-threatening conditions and unusual circumstances. Most medical schools use simulation to expose first-year students to rare events like emergencies and unusual clinical syndromes, minimize distraction due to multiple clinical scenarios occurring simultaneously, emphasize the application of theoretical knowledge, and bedside manners (D’Angelo et al., 2013).

Augmented and Virtual Reality

Companies like Lifelique are using AR and VR create immersive learning technology. Their technology is enhanced with 3D models, so science learning can be visual, hands-on and interactive for students. The digital program includes over 1,300 3D and AR models and over 700 lesson plans to help teach STEM (Cariker 2018). With this immersive learning technology, students can learn new concepts easier, and this method of learning is proven to improve test scores. Labster VR is another company that is revolutionizing science labs and learning while preparing students for the future. Labster VR offers a realistic lab experience that anyone can access to perform experiments in a risk-free environment (Cariker 2018).

The VR labs have opportunities not available in real labs: the ability to zoom in to view life science at a molecular level, missions that connect the science to real-life situations, and the ability to alter time to make experiments faster or go back in time to fix a mistake. Unity Technologies, an industry leader in gaming and AR/VR experiences, is creating new education technology for learning apps and simulations. Unity’s AR/VR can be used to train medical students, create immersive math lessons, and lab simulations for science and engineering. VR programs such as NeoTrie VR allow math students to create 3D geometric shapes and models which they can then alter within the virtual world (Cariker 2018). VR also provides the ultimate space for creativity and innovation, allow math students to bend the law of physics, which may reveal new mathematical processes and lead to brand new discoveries about our world.

Gaming

Video games can enable STEM education from elementary school all the way through college as they teach skills such as analytical thinking, multitasking, strategizing, problem-solving, and team building. Traditional learning has provided superficial learning through textbooks. Games are best at teaching a deeper level of learning. Northeastern University researchers at the Center for High-Rate Nanomanufacturing (CHN) created Geckoman to teach middle school students the basics of nanotechnology (Sethi 2012). The game tells a story about a scientist who must journey through different worlds to recover pieces of his notebook. Each level requires students to learn something about physical forces and nanotechnology to solve a problem and move on to the next level (Sethi 2012). It’s the storytelling and problem-solving that makes STEM games as successful as their more commercial counterparts. Game-based learning has been riding a wave of popularity in schools and colleges in recent years. For instance, mechanical engineering undergraduates at North Illinois University learn principles of computation and simulation by playing a cars-theme video game. Foldit, developed at the University of Washington’s Center for Game Science, challenges players to learn about the shapes of proteins and compete online to fold them into the most efficient shapes (Sethi 2012).

Conclusions and Future Recommendations

Today’s students are “digital natives” and are fundamentally different from students in the past, mainly due to their immersion in technologies and media such as video games, YouTube, and action films (Prensky, 2012). As a result, students in the 21st century should have different learning goals and therefore require different teaching approaches. The integration and effective use of technology is fundamental in an information age and knowledge-based society; technology use is no longer just an option for students and teachers, but a fundamental literacy (Mishra & Mehta, 2017). Today’s education leaders and administrators are challenged with the important task of creating online learning opportunities to make learning more accessible while providing support equivalent to students in traditional classroom settings. When technology is designed with both teachers and students in mind, and with careful attention paid to learning content, teachers and students can both benefit. The development of digital tools (i.e. online interactive learning, simulation, augmented reality (AR) and virtual reality (VR), and gaming) must be structured to acknowledge the crucial role teachers play as mediators of digital experiences. Although there is an array of high-quality digital resources available to teachers and students, it is extremely important to evaluate resources according to curriculum fit and effectiveness, and best practices. Educators need support to foster STEM learning (Brenneman, 2010). Additionally, we must create spaces where students can learn STEM subjects. This includes exposing students to the concepts, vocabulary, and experiences that accompany strong and developmentally appropriate STEM activities and preparing their teachers to support this endeavor. Engaging learners in STEM experiences can lay a foundation for later successful STEM learning. Technology can support this goal, but only with considerable effort to ensure that widespread access is a reality.

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Technology and the Curriculum: Summer 2019 by Jibran Vahidy is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License, except where otherwise noted.

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