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Educators Explore Innovative Ways to Harness Mobile Technology in the Classroom

The Internet has profoundly disrupted the traditional role of teacher as dispenser of information, and during a recent workshop at AAAS, educators, researchers, and industry representatives sought to transcend old views and help teaching methods catch up with the technology.

Teacher Leshell Hatley, founder of Uplift Inc., and her working group colleagues at the CMD-IT workshop prepared to discuss ideas for using technology to improve teaching and learning in the classroom. | Photos by Bob Roehr

Teachers in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) fields are at the forefront of both the disruption and the response, no more so than at the middle school level where many students have never experienced life in an era before smart phones became ubiquitous.

To expect those devices to go dark when kids enter the classroom evokes the Luddites of 19th Century England who sought to deny the technology of their era.

Four dozen leading teachers, academics, and policymakers grappled with these issues in an intensive two-day workshop on “Diversity as an Innovation Resource.” They have an ambitious goal: Within the next 18 months, deliver new technology-based tools that middle school teachers and students might use for learning math.

The workshop, held 19-20 June at AAAS headquarters in Washington, D.C., was organized by the Center for Minorities and People with Disabilities in Information Technology (CMD-IT, pronounced “command it”) in cooperation with AAAS and other collaborators.

“We’re looking at combining culture, mobile devices, innovation, and middle school math,” Valerie Taylor said at the start of the program. She is professor of computer science and engineering at Texas A&M and the dynamo behind CMD-IT and the workshop. She acknowledged the great support of the workshop organizing committee.

Valerie Taylor

“The train wreck” in education for all groups and all fields really starts in middle school, said Shirley Malcom, head of Education and Human Resources at AAAS. “This is a wonderful opportunity for us to figure out how to get over it.”

The Teacher’s Changing Role

“Teachers are no longer the only dispenser of information,” said Steve Robinson, a special assistant for education in the White House Domestic Policy Council. “Kids can get more information faster” from the Internet and mobile devices.

“It really changes how you can become educated. We need to think about that much more cleverly and much more carefully,” he said, “and how we move forward with technology in the classroom rather than saying there isn’t a role.”

Innovation and education are crucial for the United States to remain competitive in a global economy, Robinson added. It is the foundation for good-paying jobs in both high tech and traditional sectors.

Despite efforts to increase minority participation in STEM fields, the workforce remains predominantly white and male, with their numbers declining only from 78% to 72% over the last decade. A principle barrier, Robinson said, is “the belief that you can’t do it.” One aspect of change has to be simply exposing kids in middle school or younger to the idea that STEM fields are relevant to their lives and future.

He pointed to the personalized learning approach School of One in New York City as an example of individualization, accountability, and rapid feedback that is one way that “technology may help us think about how to do things differently.”

“We all need to think about how we change the structure [of education] so that we are helping students think about the profusion of information,” Robinson said. “How do you tell what is good and what is bad? How do you synthesize it? How do you use it? How do you make it part of your life?” Robinson said. Technology, he added, “can change and empower the role of teachers, it can change education.”

From Apps to Chocolate

Leshell Hatley pioneered the first after-school program for apps development for Android phones in 2010, engaging middle and high school students from the District of Columbia and surrounding areas. The Uplift Inc. program has been teaching STEM for more than 15 years and in 2010 won the MacArthur Foundation Digital Media & Learning Competition.

“To bring in the math, we started every class with 15 minutes of math activities just to get their brains going. Research shows that if you do some math problems before you go to absorb a complex topic, you will do at least 30% better,” she said. One student was so struck by the process that she created the Brain Warm Up app to pose random math exercises.

“We found that saying, ‘You should do this for a job’ is a dead-end to a kid,” said Hatley. So the program teaches app development as part of a suite of activities—such as creativity, presentation, and entrepreneurial skills—that can be used broadly in life. The students also lead outreach and recruitment activities for the program as part of building their self-confidence and communications skills.

About 45% of students in the program are female, a fact that Hatley largely attributes to her own example. The dynamic leader shows that STEM isn’t just a guy thing, but that young women can excel at it, too.

About 150 miles down the road at the University of Virginia, Professor Robert Berry was dismayed that no young black man had ever enrolled in the regional high school engineering preparatory courses, even though they’re 11% of the population. One barrier was the prerequisite of having completed algebra and geometry in middle school. Berry set out to change those dynamics.

Robert Berry

He drew upon a university program that focuses on rapid prototyping using 2-D and 3-D printers. In one project the boys are asked to replicate the famous university rotunda—in chocolate. The purpose is to strengthen their algebraic and spatial reasoning, he said, “and also to provide an opportunity to fail, and learn from that failure.”

The project isn’t just about engineering, it is more holistic, stretching to even include lessons in manners. Through efforts of the group 100 Black Men of Central Virginia and other sponsors, they have been able to provide a mentor for every black male of middle school age in the region.

Ron Eglash has found that cultural context and identifying examples or projects relevant to the lives of individual students can be crucial to engaging those students. Often relevance is not so much the traits one is born with, but how a child chooses to construct their own identity that is important.

The Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute professor stumbled upon the importance of fractals in African culture, from the interior layout of royal housing to the patterns of cornrows. A computer drawing program became the way to translate principles of fractals embedded in those cultural artifacts into learning tools that can be applied in myriad other ways to the arts and sciences.

A World of Practical Applications

The breakout groups during the workshop sought to identity technology that might be harnessed to concrete activities relevant to the daily lives of students. The goal was to empower learning and the discovery of processes rather than the acquisition of facts.

One breakout group chose water as the subject for developing concepts for their learning tools. It is ubiquitous, something that everyone can relate to.

Ron Eglash

In reporting back to the full group at the end of the workshop, Eglash said his group first identified necessary characteristics of the tools they wished to create. These included being learner-centered, based upon a mobile device, scaleable, and composed of a series of activities that were both interrelated but could each stand alone.

And they brainstormed on how mathematics could be put to use in areas of water usage, purity, distribution systems, and geographic information systems (GIS) in exploring regional watershed issues.

Sharie Kranz said that in fleshing out ideas on water usage, they focused on developing apps that record how much water a child uses in daily activity such as brushing teeth, taking a shower, or doing laundry. Ideally, that individual data could be uploaded to a site and compared with usage elsewhere.

Another level of intensity might fold in costs per gallon, or perhaps even variable rates that subsidize basic water needs and charge higher rates as use escalates. Patterns of use are very different in the water-rich Northeastern United States and the arid region around El Paso, Texas, where she teaches high school mathematics.

Turning to a global application, Kranz asked: “What if you had to carry the water? How much walking back and forth carrying the water would it take to get the water you need?” And would water “needs” change depending on the cost to a person as measured by dollars or time and effort required to obtain it?

The next steps for the workshop participants will be to put these rough ideas up on a social networking site, then further synthesize them into more complete project outlines.

By early August, Taylor said, they will be farmed out to participants and other collaborators, who will fully develop each project into tools for teachers and students. The goal is to complete the process within 18 months.