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STEM Education on the Holodeck: The Future Has Arrived


September 2011, Voume 24, Number 9

by David Thornburg 

At a time when the U.S. economy is experiencing great challenges, there is one fact that is a matter of utmost urgency. The development of STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math) skills is a national priority. The need for people pursuing careers in these fields has never been higher—even if employment challenges exist in the short term.

For example, at the height of the Apollo program, NASA and its contractors sent 12 people to leave footprints on the moon. This effort required 400,000 people here on Earth. As the baby-boomers are retiring, huge gaps in the engineering workforce are being felt in aerospace and other high-tech industries, not only in the U.S. but in other countries as well.

This need is often expressed through the shorthand of saying we are experiencing a Sputnik moment. To those not yet born in the 1950s, it is important to understand just how powerful the impact of the launch of Sputnik was to the growth of STEM skills in the U.S. When the Soviets launched their satellite into low earth orbit, they sparked the dreams of many children of the October sky—this author among them. While I might have pursued a career in engineering anyway, there is no doubt in my mind that my decision to enter the STEM fields was given a huge boost by the launch of Sputnik. And I was not alone. Consider the myriad devices we take for granted today—the personal computer, cell phone, laser printer, CAT scanner, even the signature tablet you use every time you make a charge purchase from a machine. Each of these was invented by a child of the October sky—someone whose life was touched by the original Sputnik moment.

These people could not have achieved this alone; they had the benefit of an educational system that responded to the need for more people to enter the STEM fields. In other words, personal desire and educational opportunity combined to generate the perfect storm that led to amazing developments.

The challenge we face today is two-fold. First, STEM fields are not as popular as they once were and, second, pre-college students are challenged by an educational system that seems more concerned with test scores than with building and strengthening lifelong interests in these topics. For example, even though the AAAS and the National Academies have called for a curriculum that bridges all four STEM areas (or, excluding mathematics, at least three of these topics), our curriculum is largely isolated into stovepipes where the chance for cross-disciplinary learning is minimal to nonexistent. Furthermore, with the general exception of the CTE institutions, engineering is largely ignored. This, alone, is quite sad since engineering is the glue that holds the rest of STEM together. One can explore math, science, and technology subjects in isolation, but engineering requires the integration of all of them together.

Also, if we want to seriously jump start economic recovery, one way to do this is to spring creative and entrepreneurial STEM talent into the market to foster the growth of new companies that will reassert leadership in the global economy.

Fortunately, there are two forces than can be harnessed to address the STEM education challenge, one technological and one pedagogical.

The technological force is the easiest to implement because it has been embraced by the students themselves—the explosive rise of mobile computing. Whether it is through the smartphone, the tablet, or another computing device, students arrive at school with full access to the Library of Congress, NASA, and myriad other resources through devices in their pockets and backpacks. In this world, textbooks are an expensive nuisance of little perceived value to the student. Also, research on a topic can and does cut across disciplines with ease. Finally, the growth of these technologies is staggering. New installations of these mobile devices exceed 500,000 per day, worldwide. The importance of these tools goes far beyond the technology itself; it is that student-owned mobile tools let students explore topics of their own in as much depth as they want. A topic that triggers the imagination when mentioned by a teacher can now turn into a passion for learning by the student—all facilitated by the devices students bring with them every day.

The second force that can affect STEM education is the growth of inquiry-driven project-based learning (PBL) as a pedagogical model that has great power in STEM education since it moves way beyond textbook content into the realm of having students actively work on projects that can cut across multiple domains. There are two key elements to this approach: first is the formation of a driving question, the force behind the exploration students will make. The second is the project itself, in which students dive deeply into multiple knowledge domains in their quest to provide some answers to the driving question.

While PBL can be implemented in a traditional classroom, we have designed a special place for these projects called the Educational Holodeck.

The Holodeck originated in science fiction as a special room that, under computer control, can be transformed into any imaginable kind of environment—a sailing ship, the streets of London in the time of Sherlock Holmes, etc. Of course, the fictional holodeck cannot (yet) be built. But it can be approximated to create a learning environment that is both immersive and interactive.

Our educational holodeck prototype in Brazil is an immersive and highly interactive environment in which STEM missions are carried out by a classroom full of participants. For example, students may take a trip to Mars to explore whether the Red Planet has, or ever had, microbial life. Students form teams based on various needs—geologists, life scientists, medical doctors, etc. On the journey, several challenges occur, requiring immediate cooperative solutions. The result from the students' perspective is that they end up learning far more than they would from lectures or books, and acquire not only knowledge but skills that can be used across content fields. And, importantly, they also develop what David Shaffer calls “epistemic frames,” in which they not only acquire knowledge and skills in a particular domain, but also learn something of the values, identity, and epistemology associated with professionals in the field. This is of great value in attracting interest in a domain. If a student can't see why, for example, anyone would spend a career as a mathematician, that student is not likely to delve into math much herself.

Each holodeck mission starts with a short video (five minutes or less) setting up the challenge, and then the mission starts. Walls are filled with imagery (for example, a six-meter-wide viewport in the front of the room looking out into space.) Other displays represent, for example, interactive control panels for the spaceship. The result is that, within a short period of time, students feel as if they were on a real mission. Each mission can range in time from a few hours to an entire term, although not everything is done inside the holodeck— freeing it up for other classes to use.

Environments like this not only support the development of STEM skills, they also encourage students to explore STEM areas they may not have thought much about in the past.

David Thornburg is founder of The Thornburg Center, www.tcpd.org. He will be the opening keynote speaker at the League's 2011 STEMtech Conference, October 2-5, in Indianapolis.

Opinions expressed in Leadership Abstracts are those of the authors and do not necessarily represent those of the League for Innovation in the Community College.

Posted by The League for Innovation in the Community College on 09/12/2011 at 11:08 AM | Categories: Leadership Abstracts -