25 Years of Innovation and a Glimpse into the Future
The Concord Consortium was founded on a single, grand vision: technology would one day transform the way we learn science, mathematics, and engineering. A quarter century later our vision is playing out in classrooms and homes around the world. From supporting novel investigation to opening up modeling and data exploration, technology makes sense-making possible in ever more powerful ways. New frontiers in analytics, collaboration, artificial intelligence, and other technologies deepen and expand possibilities for STEM learning and open the door to long-term continued innovation.
This founding vision, launched by Bob Tinker 25 years ago, grew out of a convergence of forces. Moore’s Law, which maintains that computer processing power doubles every year, correctly forecast decades of exponential innovation. As personal computers started appearing in homes and schools, people recognized they were useful beyond the office. In its early days the Internet was available to only a few, but its potential became apparent quickly. And miniaturization introduced a new genre of truly mobile devices that would grow into today’s powerful smartphones.
These factors represented a perfect storm of innovation that would come to revolutionize learning. Early progress at the Concord Consortium proceeded in multiple directions, each powered by a different combination of these innovations. Pairing an Apple II microprocessor with a Polaroid camera’s auto-focus sensor or a basic two-wire thermistor yielded the world’s first motion detector and a new family of fast-response temperature sensors, which would help decades of learners visualize phenomena in new ways. Combining computer availability with global networking gave rise to the nation’s first online high school and a network supporting the first online teacher professional development. Linking specialized research computing algorithms to the power of microprocessors made modeling and simulation possible for pedagogical purposes, unlocking entire worlds of scientific exploration into otherwise-inaccessible concepts such as molecular interactions and plate tectonics.
We have always believed that computing would become ubiquitous, that powerful modeling and simulation tools would be widely used, and that mobile devices would unlock the power of information and data for everyone. And in many ways, they finally have. We take for granted that our mobile devices can provide computationally modeled weather forecasts, instantly calculate precise financial projections, or visualize astronomical occurrences in real time. Yet even as we enjoy the benefits of this technology revolution, there is more work to be done. Society must ensure we make the best possible use of technology in education—to extend and deepen STEM learning in meaningful ways for all learners.
New technologies and new possibilities
New technologies seem to appear daily, bringing with them the potential to transform the ways we teach and learn. Miniaturization has moved beyond mobile phones to supply a flood of devices in all conceivable forms. This new landscape, powered by tiny microcontrollers and storage devices, now supports a burgeoning ecosystem of innovation from everyday household devices to drones, monitoring technologies, and robotic devices. This Internet of Things (IoT) has transformed industry, business, and medicine in countless ways, tightening supply chains, providing new opportunities in security, and revolutionizing longstanding medical procedures. Yet the potential IoT holds for education remains largely unexplored.
Through our research, we are learning how to use IoT devices for pedagogical purposes, identifying new applications and modes of use. We’re helping students deploy sensors and actuators to automate independent, long-term biology investigations. We’re helping learners engineer solutions, and studying how these tools interact with mobile computing platforms to assist learning. And we’re employing these devices across a wide variety of situations, from citizen and community science to hands-on maker projects. We’re excited about what the Internet of Things offers STEM education, and we’re working with promising applications to explore ways they can build student understanding of computing and computational thinking.
Another essential, though almost transparent feature of technology today is collaboration. With boundless opportunities to connect with others, we often assume that collaboration is a given. However, while examples of collaborating around technology have long been available, true and deep exemplars of collaborative technology for enhancing STEM learning remain elusive. We are paving the way in this regard, experimenting with modes and methods by which technology can connect learners. Whether building workplace-ready collaboration skills in electronics troubleshooting or bringing middle school students together to build a joint understanding of mathematical concepts, we’re opening new possibilities for learning with collaborative technology.
Artificial intelligence (AI) is yet another area in which technology has come into view recently. While it incubated quietly in academia for decades, always seeming just a few years away, in the past ten years it has finally begun to deliver on its longstanding promise. Having proven out its feasibility, AI has gone on to rapidly find application in healthcare, engineering, entertainment, and industry—sometimes appearing seemingly everywhere one looks. AI and machine learning have the potential to revolutionize learning as well. Whether reframing the way learners approach engineering in open-ended problems, assisting them in improving their argumentation skills, or helping teachers identify and focus on students’ most critical sense-making needs as they progress in game-based learning, we are working to advance exemplars of AI’s important possibilities within STEM education.
New opportunities, longstanding need
There’s no doubt it’s an exciting time to be in science teaching and learning. The new perspectives introduced in A Framework for K-12 Science Education and adopted by the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS) and many state standards usher in a new paradigm for science learning. Teachers nationwide are beginning to embrace the central tenets of NGSS: downplaying memorization, emphasizing students’ ideas, and engaging learners in actively making sense of phenomena.
It is not a simple shift. In many ways it upends decades of traditional science teaching and means rethinking long-held assumptions about learning. Nonetheless, educators across the nation are learning to adopt new methods and approaching their students’ thinking in novel ways. This seems like cause for celebration, and it is. It also creates exciting new challenges. In order to bring about deep, rich STEM understanding, learners must be able to engage firsthand in the practices of science, mathematics, and engineering. For many topics, this is eminently possible. Hand lenses, stopwatches, pendulums, balances—as well as plain old dirt, water, and patience—all offer countless avenues for investigation of the surrounding world, generally limited only by teachers’ readiness and imagination. However, a great many STEM topics do not make themselves so readily available, and few give up their mysteries easily. Instead, the wonders of the world must be actively teased out. In many such cases, phenomena are invisible, or data are messy and overwhelming, or key concepts lie within highly complex, interacting systems. In these and many other cases, technology is critical to honing STEM practices and discovering and understanding STEM concepts across topics.
Our work at the Concord Consortium is focused on these situations—places where technology opens up worlds that are otherwise closed off for learning. In far too many STEM subjects, learners are still deprived of important opportunities to act and think like scientists. Technology often holds the key. As we look forward to the next 25 years and consider the new innovations to come, we remain optimistic and confident that technology’s role in STEM learning will continue to expand. We see a future where more learners have the freedom every day to comprehend the invisible structure and beauty of the world around them while building skills and confidence in investigating and answering important questions.
Chad Dorsey (firstname.lastname@example.org) is President of the Concord Consortium.