Experts speak out about leading the tech agenda in STEM education

Practical 'first-steps' on how to adopt a tech-based STEM education

School teachers and technologists recognise the potential for technology-based STEM education to empower students, but structural shortcomings and a lack of specialised resources continue to drag down efforts around transformation.

Additionally, those leading the tech agenda can implement a range of methods and tools to better integrate STEM into teaching - and implement ICT infrastructure, services and solutions that will up-skill the workforce of the future.

Those were two of the keys messages heard by attendees during a two-city roadshow tour of Computerworld’s Education Event: Leading the Tech Agenda in STEM Education: Preparing Youth for Success,’ sponsored by Dell and Microsoft.

At the Melbourne and Sydney events, educational leaders, along with IT experts, shared insights and practical ‘first-steps’ and successful measures on how to adopt a technology-based STEM education agenda.

Lessons learned at Kangaroo Flat

In Melbourne, Ben Fiegert, leading teacher (STEM specialist) at Kangaroo Flat Primary School in Bendigo, who is one of 200 specialist STEM teachers taking part in the Department of Education and Training initiative to improve STEM teaching across Victoria, delivered practical examples how his school is delivering the tech learning agenda.

“Technology has become more accessible in the school setting over the last 15 years. The first class I took an ICT lesson with was in a computer lab, 2 students to 1 computer. The computers took five minutes to load, students didn’t know their login information and if they saved their work, most students (and teachers) couldn’t find it next time. But you could see that students were engaged with technology and they wanted to use it and learn with it,” he said.

Fiegert said STEM has always been high on his agenda, indicating he has included STEM activities in his teaching with students designing environmental centres and even building a chook shed and yard.

"The success with the boys program included working with students and teachers to incorporate technology in the classroom. This included Learning Objects which were being introduced to Victoria and included a lot of science and maths activities, all available on ABC Splash now. Teachers found these useful and supportive of their teaching and also easy to access. They came on a DVD which could be put on a school server and eliminated the hassle of internet access.”

At the beginning of this year, the school was given the opportunity to participate in the Department’s STEM education Professional Development Program, which included time and professional development for two staff members.

By having professional development in this area, Fiegert said the engagement factor for students is very high, and growing in intensity. The school has now fully embraced technology (and not just literacy); and embraced the use of technology such as coding, drones and MaKey MaKey, which is creating a highly engaging and collaborative learning.

But there’s work to be done in terms of changing mindsets, he said, explaining there’s currently limited teacher engagement across many schools.

“Early adopters see the engagement of students, but many teachers still want to control the curriculum and control where students are heading. When teachers hand control of the content and step back to allow students to explore and collaborate, great outcomes will follow,” he said.

“The title of 'expert' needs to be handed over from the teacher to the classroom when technology and classrooms combine. Thirty per cent of our grade 4 to 6 students are running their own youtube channels and will explain how and why they create these videos. How do we use these skills to strengthen their learning and how do we provide the right technology for them to do this?”

He said the adoption of technologies including MaKey MaKey, Raspberry Pi and drones is a good starting point. “Students are now starting to question what they can do with these. This year we started a Code Club with 10 students attending after school once a week. We now have 20 students who come to Code Club developing skills and collaborating to make projects.

“As part of this program we have started to look at other people's coding through the Scratch MIT website. This process is about looking at code and working out what code does what in the program. This has opened up new possibilities to students as we continue to explore coding.”

He suggested schools get involved in community programs. Kangaroo Flat is currently working with Code Club Australia, Bendigo Science and Discovery Centre and Coder Dojo, which is run by the Science and Discovery Centre and Bendigo Tech School start up group.

Ravenswood STEM journey

In Sydney, Terri Jones, deputy principal, head of learning and innovation at Ravenswood School for Girls in Gordon, Sydney, discussed how to begin the journey towards STEM and some of the approaches the school has taken.

Jones said the school, its students and staff have enjoyed remarkable success in a relatively short period of time and students now see themselves as not only discerning consumers of the digital world but active creators of innovative solutions to the problems of the present and future.

“When we embarked on our journey to lift the level of achievement and engagement in STEM subjects at Ravenswood we began from the premise that we needed to respond to both the Chief Scientist's calls for an enrichment of STEM in Australia generally, but also to adress the PWC report, ‘A Smart Move,” which discusses how to future proof Australia's workforce by growing skills in STEM.

She said the Ravenswood STEM Committee, which was hatched and finding success with pushing the tech in STEM agenda, articulated its mission: To prepare girls to not only be discerning consumers of the digital world but active creators of innovative solutions to the problems of the present and future.

In order to embark on the technology in STEM journey, Jones said the school ensured good WiFi connectivity (ensuring high speed secure network infrastructure to facilitate access to the internet via a secure firewall protecting student devices and the network); invested in student and staff devices (laptops, tablets and mobile devices); implemented computing software; computer hardware; concrete materials; and portal class pages and storage.

On the curriculum and learning front, Jones said the school looked to embed more technology in the programs available to students to “encourage them to embrace coding, robotics, laser printing, 3D printing and computer aided design.”

Saying it is a ‘whole of school approach,’ she said the school did an audit of skills and created the STEM committee; took some crucial curriculum approaches (re-programming in K-7 to integrate STEM); embarked on professional learning for staff; appointed an ICT integrator K-10 role; expanded robotics in Years 6 and 7 with a developmental focus; and created a STEM digital newsletter.

Like Ben Fiegert of Kangaroo Flat, Jones encouraged all schools to uncover the power of partnerships. At Ravenswood, it struck partnerships with MAAS – formerly Powerhouse Museum; MacICT; UNSW Robogals; University of Sydney STEM Teacher Enrichment Academy; MTA; CSIRO and Intel, among others.

In reflecting on lessons learned, she said the school recognises the importance of learning beyond the walls of the classroom. She urged her peers to break down the silos in the STEM disciplines but also respect that discipline-specific learning will be required for rigour; expand their horizons to include partners beyond the school; and collaborate and ‘do.’

“Stop finding reasons not to engage in STEM and tackle challenges transparently. Make many mistakes along the way and model this with and for students. Share with your community, provide constructive criticism, learn from the experts and ask for what you need.”

Aussies embrace innovative tech for STEM: survey

Attendees also got a sneak peak of the results of the recent Dell Technology in STEM Education Survey, conducted by IDG, which was sponsored by Dell and Microsoft.

The survey explored STEM teaching practices amongst 426 schools principals and education technologies from Prep to Year 12.

Overall, the results of the survey highlighted the fact that Australian schools are embracing innovative technology for STEM education, but it is still a work in progress, the findings show.

The findings reveal educators are adopting a range of methods and tools to better integrate STEM into their teaching. High on their wish list is robotics kits and 3D printers.

Indeed, collaboration is gaining currency amongst educators as a key facilitator of STEM education as schools use communications technologies to help their students access peers and mentors in private industry and elsewhere.

Asked to rate the importance of a range of potential benefits of technology-driven STEM education, respondents overwhelmingly recognised the importance of technology in giving STEM students the ability to perform inquiry and research work.

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Others lauded its ability to create authentic projects to solve real-world problems and ability to empower students to have a voice in the way they learn and demonstrate their mastery. Development of real-world skills was also flagged as a key benefit of technology-driven STEM in education, the survey said.

There was, however, broad divergence around how schools could deliver those benefits - particularly around the number of devices available to students, with only 51.4 per cent of respondents saying their school was able to provide one compelling device per student.

Asked what technologies STEM teachers use, the survey revealed a range including: programming tools and digital tools ( which was tied at 69.2 per cent). The list also showed teachers want: video/audio production software and hardware (61.5 per cent); computer-based instruction (58 per cent); robotics software and kits (54.9 per cent); drawing, painting and graphic design software (39.4 per cent); game-based learning software (37.8 per cent); specialised science/math laboratory equipment (34 per cent); video-game design programs (28.6 per cent); and group videoconferencing equipment (not computer-based) - at 12.9 per cent.

When we talk about innovative technologies being adopted: things like coding tools (69.2 per cent of respondents said they use it); while video/audio production tools (at 61.5 per cent), computer-based instruction (58 per cent) and robotics software (54.9 per cent) rounded out the list, the survey said.

Today, most schools are trying to integrate STEM expertise into their mainstream class offerings, but only a few are promoting STEM subjects through specialised classes or programs.

Findings show 61.5 per cent of respondents said their STEM efforts were being integrated as mainstream class offerings, while 12.2 per cent are offering STEM as optional subjects and just 12.7 per cent made STEM subjects mandatory for students.

Yet even as these new technologies were embraced, educators suggested that most schools were struggling to decide what sort of new approaches would be most effective, the survey said.

Interestingly, the research found teachers are doing STEM on their own - despite the call to action across the country.

The research found a lack of formal guidance around STEM education has forced schools and teachers to develop their own teaching methods.

Fully 41.6 per cent of respondents said their STEM curriculum was created within the school, while 35.2 said there was no standard STEM curriculum to draw on and that educators were designing their own programs. Just 4.2 said they had used ACARA’s newly standardised for guidance.

Focusing on some of the challenges, the survey revealed the most commonly-cited problems that teachers identified in using technology for STEM education.

Topping the list is a lack of teacher professional development in integration of technology (64.8 per cent), which was listed with education principals and educational technologists in every stage and at every level of school.

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The next three biggest problems teachers faced in delivery on the goals of STEM education included: lack of funding (54.7 per cent); time restrictions in developing and delivering appropriate curriculum (52.4 per cent); and lack of a structured STEM curriculum (42.3 per cent).

Respondents are concerned by a lack of real-world guidance around STEM education - many teachers said they need modelled STEM teaching; schools need actual professional development; and they need to employ a design and technology specialist throughout the school for at least two years.

Overall, the results painted a picture of an educational community that wholeheartedly recognises the importance of STEM education, which has been prioritised in the past year as the government’s focus on innovation and is supported with far-reaching strategies from the office of the Chief Scientist, which released for educators, the survey said.

The research then highlighted the computing devices enabling STEM education. Schools reported a range of computing devices in use, with Windows laptops (34 per cent) and desktops (12.9 per cent) - considered the most common computing platform and well ahead of Mac OS based laptops (7.7 per cent) and desktops (1.2 per cent).

Meanwhile, Apple iPads were the most commonly used mobile device (at 21.8 per cent). Microsoft Windows is the most widely used operating system for STEM teaching in Australian schools - 47 per cent of computing devices run Windows operating systems; while 31 per cent of devices run Apple operating systems.

Despite the varied approaches to STEM learning, the use of computing devices was broadly recognised as being key to helping students access STEM learning tools and equipment.

In conclusion, the findings suggest using learning technologies to improve Australia’s STEM teaching is crucial to ensure that today’s students can meet the demand of the 21st century - school principals and IT decision makers have confirmed.


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