TIC Talk: Increasing Engagement and Learning in STEM Education
Written by Stacy Schultz
On day two of the four-day UW Bothell Innovation Forum, professors from the university presented cutting edge research related to increasing students’ engagement and learning in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM). “We are trying to imagine new ways of designing learning environments for STEM education that takes learners’ prior knowledge, interests, and identities into account,” said Carrie Tzou, assistant professor of education.
As members of the audience ate lunch, Tzou along with Kelvin Sung, professor of Computing and Software Systems, and Robin Angotti, associate professor of Education each took the stage to share their work.
Tzou discussed her research as a science educator working with elementary and high school students. Her goal, she said, is to bring what is important and culturally relevant in students’ lives into the classroom while at the same time expanding scientific inquiry into students’ everyday lives outside of school.
She said young students who are given a chance to identify with STEM-related projects in school are more likely to pursue higher education degrees in those fields later on. “They learn to participate in science and have that identity formation as someone who can do science,” she said.
Her projects have included fifth grade students who learn about microbes through a scientific examination of how their families maintain healthy habits at home. Another project involved high school students who studied the effect of pollutants on fish in Puget Sound and how their own use of personal care products might be contributing to the problem.
Sung reported on his work with faculty and students using video games. The conventional thinking, he said, is that students like to play video games so educators should find ways for students to learn by playing. Actually, he said, many students want to learn how to build games.
Sung saw video games as a potential tool for faculty to teach basic computer science skills. The goal of his project is to give faculty some expertise in game programming so they can incorporate games in their lessons. “I’m interested in giving professors a tool to teach what they want to teach, but not for it to take over the entire class,” he said. “We are teaching computer science coding concepts through building simple games.”
The logic behind the coding is the same when you are making changes to the front end, or user experience. “The professor doesn’t need to know so much about gaming,” he said. Still, many professors are not “gamers” he pointed out, so he offers two-day workshops for teachers to learn how to build their own games.
Robin Angotti, who focuses on math education, says that 21st century students need to know more than just how to compute numbers. “There’s a shift in math education to more critical thinking skills,” she said. Students need to do creative problem solving, they need to develop flexibility in thinking, and the ability to question, she said.
Her research has focused on implementing a technology called “Kinect” that uses infrared laser tracking, voice recognition, and face recognition to teach math principles. The technology allows teachers to incorporate movement into math lessons. Angotti calls it “gesture-supported learning.”
Using volunteer members from the audience, Angotti demonstrated how it works. Students come to the front of the room and stand a short distance from the Kinect device. The device tracks motion as they move their bodies, either walking back and forth or moving their arms. Software created by programmers at UW Bothell display the results in graph form on a large screen and then students are asked to describe in mathematical terms, what the graph shows.
“Everything I used to write up on the board, I can have students demonstrate by moving their bodies,” Angotti said. There is not research yet to show whether gesture-supported learning improves students’ understanding of math concepts, she said, but it does seem to increase the interest of students who are not otherwise excited about math class.
One member of the audience wondered if gesture-supported learning could be used to help students gain insight about the Roman Empire. Another audience member talked about using the technology for teaching physics. Angotti agreed there are many possibilities. “There’s so much more that I could do with this,” she said.