STEM Beats - January 2012

Let the Games Begin?

January 30, 2012

A piece in today’s New York Times begins with a question countless parents and teachers have asked before. Why would a teen who shows so little interest in learning at school spend hours upon hours mastering the arcane rules and made-up knowledge of game like Call of Duty?

One answer might be dopamine, "a chemical 'which helps orient our attention and enhances the making of connections between neurons, which is the physical basis for learning.'" Some scientists argue that games can boost the brain's production of dopamine.

This is not to argue that we should make Call of Duty or World of Warcraft the bedrock of our school curriculum. Yet a growing--and very diverse--group of people believe that we have much to learn from these and other games.

The list of groups getting involved in gaming and education includes The Institute of Play, GameDesk, e-Line Ventures and the AMD Foundation, among many others. (Even Justice Sandra Day O'Connor has thrown her hat into the ring.)

The idea still strikes many as odd. Many exasperated parents and teachers see games as time wasters and distractions from the serious business of learning.

It may be tough to overcome their resistance at first, but the vision of a teen spending hours at a game console, computer, smart phone (or whatever) trying to master cell algebra or cell biology might just be a game-changer.

Disclosure: AMD and e-Line Ventures are members of Change the Equation.

Young People See Big Barriers to Pursuing Science, Technology, Engineering or Math

January 27, 2012

About six in ten young people in the U.S. say they face barriers that might keep them from furthering their education or pursuing a career in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM). That is the dispiriting finding of a new poll coming out of Lemelson-MIT program.

Why? Twenty-one percent say they don’t know enough about these fields. Twenty percent say they’re too hard. Seventeen percent say school hasn’t prepared them well enough. Smaller percentages say STEM isn't relevant to daily life (!) or doesn't pay enough (!!). Only 40 percent total say nothing stands in their way.

The findings of survey bolster what we've heard from ACT: namely, that almost seven in ten 12th graders are not interested in STEM careers.

So is there anything we can do to turn the tide? The barriers young people list aren't insuperable. Many of those who don't know about STEM would likely warm to it if they knew more. That was the finding of a recent survey Intel fielded (in collaboration with Change the Equation). As for those who say STEM isn't relevant or doesn't pay enough... C'mon! Count those students among those who don't know about STEM and would benefit from some outreach.

The feeling that STEM is too hard, or that school hasn't prepared students well enough, is a tougher nut to crack. STEM can certainly be challenging, and it's especially hard if school hasn't prepared you well. Reams of evidence show that all too many students tumble off the STEM path as it gets steeper. To make matters worse, many states set the bar for proficiency in math and science very low, setting young people up for a major shock later on.

So we need good PR, high standards, and boatloads of support for students. It's not an easy recipe, but it could hardly be more important.

Tags: science, technology, engineering, math

Time to Make a Deal with Teachers?

January 25, 2012

Every bargain has to balance give and take. If there's not much give--but a whole lot of take--then the bargain may well fall flat.

In his State of the Union address last night, President Obama quietly raised this issue when he proposed that we offer teachers and schools a deal:

Teachers matter. So instead of bashing them, or defending the status quo, let’s offer schools a deal. Give them the resources to keep good teachers on the job, and reward the best ones. In return, grant schools flexibility: to teach with creativity and passion; to stop teaching to the test; and to replace teachers who just aren’t helping kids learn.

At the heart of this deal is a controversial idea: Make student gains on standard tests a central part of teacher evaluations. Teachers who produce the highest gains should reap the rewards, the argument goes, while those who produce few gains eventually get replaced.

There's been far more talk about the second half of this bargain: Should weeding out low performers be the main focus of our school reform efforts? Are gains in student performance a valid and stable measure of poor teaching? The notion of a grand bargain often gives way to a knock-down fight over how and when to fire teachers.

In a new report, Craig Jerald seeks to reaffirm and even broaden the terms of the deal. Jerald writes that data on students' test performance can help us "de-select" teachers--a euphemism favored by some economists. Yet he also insists that we should use such data to help make struggling, middling and even great teachers better at what they do. Many more teachers should get better professional development as part of the bargain.

Jerald faults state policy makers for focusing mostly on teacher dismissal, thereby confirming some teachers' worst fears. In the end, the success of reforms to teacher evaluation systems depends on the strength and reciprocity of the deal, Jerald concludes:

States and districts implementing new evaluation systems should take every step possible to ensure that the feedback teachers receive from evaluations is as valuable as teachers have been promised. If reformers and education leaders fail to deliver on even that very basic pledge, the current “big bang” of teaching-effectiveness reforms could very well collapse in a “big crunch.”

Not Just for Boy Scouts: Will Badges Upend Traditional College Degrees?

January 23, 2012

Digital badges may one day give colleges a run for their money, some experts claim. If badges can formally attest to what people have learned outside of school--in jobs, clubs, private study, or even hobbies--they may carry more weight than traditional college credentials do, argue Kevin Carey and Joann Jacobs.

The idea behind badges is that we all learn a great deal informally. Some claim that informal learning can be deeper, more valuable, than what we learn in school. If badges can certify that learning and clearly convey it to employers, formal bachelor's degrees(or other degrees) might begin to matter that much less. For Jacobs, badges would therefore break the college "monopoly" and drive down tuition costs.

The rub, of course, is finding a way to certify informal learning in a clear and truly reliable way. That is no easy task, but some people are setting themselves to the challenge. The Macarthur and Mozilla Foundations have joined forces with The Humanities, Arts, Science and Technology Advanced Collaboratory (HASTAC) to launch a contest to create badges that measure learning.

Will this work upend the traditional college degree?

Image: Wikimedia Commons

The Future Is Now

January 19, 2012

In 1911, an intrepid writer for the Ladies' Home Journal went to “the wisest and most careful men in our greatest institutions of science and learning” and gathered predictions of what life would be like in 2011. How’d they do?

Alas, we don’t have strawberries the size of apples, green roses, cities free of noise because all traffic runs on “high trestles,” pneumatic tubes that send store purchases to every home, or a world without “mosquitoes, horseflies or roaches.” And we unfortunately don’t take poor children “on trips to various parts of the world” as part of their schooling.

But those wise and careful men did get a few things remarkably right:

  • “Hot and cold air from spigots,” which we now know as forced-air heating.
  • "Trains one hundred fifty miles an hour." A low estimate, as it turns out. (Our prognosticators did miss the mark, however, when they predicted that “air ships” wouldn’t carry passengers or freight.)
  • “Automobiles will be substituted for every horse vehicle now known.”
  • "Wireless telephone and telegraph circuits will span the world." Take out the bit about the telegraph, and this one’s spot on.
  • “Photographs will reproduce all nature’s colors.” There was already some color photography by 1911, but it was scarce.
  • "Man will see around the world" through "cameras connected electronically with screens at opposite ends of circuits, thousands of miles at a span." (And he will squander that gift by watching "Jersey Shore.")

For all their prescience, the wise men missed the digital and internet revolutions. We can hardly blame them. We all tend to see the future in terms of the present. That’s why, as change continues to pick up its pace, schools have to prepare us to thrive in worlds unknown.