New Initiatives Open Doors for STEM Learning

By Chad Dorsey

Chad Dorsey is President of the Concord Consortium.

A number of important trends have evolved that will shape the future of learning through technology. These paint an exciting picture for the coming years. The Concord Consortium is pursuing significant research and development opportunities at the forefront of these trends.

Opportunities for discovery

One of the central aspects of science learning is the importance of discovery. Scientists can toil their whole lives toward seemingly intractable problems, fueled solely by the excitement and intrigue of discovering something new that adds to or changes our understanding of nature. Learners are no different, motivated by the next “aha!” moment. Every chance to interact with phenomena is an opportunity for personal scientific discovery. However, these opportunities are all too often unidentified or unavailable, so moments of inspiration are lost. Technology can change that, turning everyday moments into exceptional flights of inspiration and opening doors to learning far sooner than traditional approaches.

Much of the potential for discovery in science depends upon the ability to notice something new or different in the first place. Any new "way of seeing"—think telescope, microscope, or MRI—has ushered in its own groundbreaking era of insight. In science education, another new era is upon us with the advent of the affordable infrared (IR) camera. These devices, which cost tens of thousands of dollars only years ago, now transform an iPhone into a sophisticated discovery device for less than $200. For years we've been using their compelling images to provide new perspectives on the natural thermal energy differences of everyday phenomena. Now, new funding will expose the hidden world of chemistry, shedding new light on chemical processes and creating powerful new techniques that enable discovery in the undergraduate chemistry laboratory.

Students don't need to be in an undergraduate lab to reach new understandings about the world around them—they can just as well be in kindergarten. We're developing innovations to enable young students to discover aspects of the particulate nature of matter. A new project unites probeware and model-based inquiry to help young learners investigate connections between heat and phases of matter. Experiences linking temperature sensors and particle-based simulations make the relationships among these topics visible and explorable. As students combine hands-on observations with representations of particles they see on the computer, they build and refine a model that explains their discoveries. Our curricular approach will help young learners gain a powerful, explanatory appreciation for the unseen world and leverage discovery into foundational understanding of a topic essential to all future science learning.

Fostering inquiry

While tools and approaches for discovery are essential to uncovering intriguing phenomena, the next step for both scientists and students is to explore these phenomena systematically. Although research makes it clear that students should conduct independent, open-ended investigations, the process of generating, managing, and understanding scientific experiments can often be overwhelming. Learners must juggle measurement tools and lab equipment, understand the process of data collection, and then format and wrangle data sets into meaningful representations. As learners navigate these complexities, hiccups and complications abound. As a result, most laboratory experiences end up far more reminiscent of recipes than independent inquiry.

Though the cognitive journey leading toward open-ended inquiry is complex, it is crucial to developing a deep understanding of science and to cultivating skills necessary for both citizenship and future STEM careers. Using innovative technologies, we are transforming this otherwise ungainly experience into a seamless progression with opportunities for analysis, sense making, and further investigation. By combining a software environment that integrates probeware, video analysis tools, and data exploration capabilities with instructional guidance, we aid students in moving from fundamental data analysis and scaffolded experiments to open experiments of their own design.

In addition to facilitating measurement and analysis, we will engage students in thinking about the control of experiments and the computing skills involved in managing data flow and feedback loops that monitor and respond to an ongoing experiment. In the process, students will engage with inquiry experiences that replicate essential aspects of modern laboratory experiments, using computational thinking skills and gaining experience with the actuators and sensors that comprise the "Internet of Things."

Expanding the boundaries of modeling and simulation

Our work in modeling and simulation has demonstrated technology's power to make the invisible visible and explorable for years. Whether providing "hands-on" access to the molecular world or enabling inquiry in genetics, our models and simulations open doors to understanding many otherwise inaccessible topics. In the process, we have developed a flexible set of open-source simulation engines and strong research-based approaches for their development and application. The next generation of work in this area is expanding the horizons of modeling.

One way in which these horizons can expand is through stronger connections across interrelated topics. Natural phenomena abound with complex interconnections, but educational constraints often force them into containers that render the connections all but unrecognizable. Biology is perhaps the key offender—in genetics, activity at the cellular, molecular, and whole-organism biological layers is inextricably intertwined, yet the three are typically addressed as discrete topics. Further, the central evolutionary concepts that bind them together are often taught in isolation from all three. We are addressing this problem directly, developing models and simulations that combine the richness of evolution and ecosystems with all aspects of genetics into a single interconnected whole.

We are stretching the notion of models and simulations in other innovative ways. In our new GEODE project, we are bringing static visualizations of most Earth science classes to life with dynamic modeling environments that students can use to create and test scenarios and explore concepts of geological systems and deep time. We're also expanding models in a literal sense—our Precipitating Change project will place students directly inside models of severe weather events, allowing them to monitor live radar screens and place virtual rain and wind gauges on the floor to collect data as virtual thunderstorms pass through the classroom. Students will also design models themselves, applying computational thinking skills as they create, evaluate, and combine forecast models and issue evacuation orders to nearby "towns."

In other cases, combining technologies can extend the possibilities of models far beyond the ordinary. Our work with electronics models focuses on understanding and fostering collaboration, linking multiple students together in collaborative groups, each designing a part of a full virtual circuit. As students work together to troubleshoot the circuit, they exhibit and hone their collaboration skills. Behind the scenes, we are able to analyze their interactions with the simulation and each other, using data analytics to develop new approaches for characterizing, assessing, and supporting student collaboration. And in yet another new project, we are creating an entirely new technology genre, permitting learners to grapple with "wicked problems" involving multiple interlinked complex systems. Combining our easy-to-use SageModeler tool for diagramming and modeling complex systems with MIT's StarLogo agent-based modeling environment, we will enable learners to model complex systems at multiple levels, providing an unprecedented path to understanding the complicated world of system dynamics.

We are thrilled to stand at the forefront of so much exciting new work, and are eager to develop and share the resources, findings, and tools we generate. We invite you to read the back cover of this issue where we outline additional projects that will move our research forward in innovative new directions.

Chad Dorsey ( is President of the Concord Consortium.

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