There is a constant call for an increase in science technology, engineering and mathematics graduates—also known as STEM topics. But the problem is not with the graduates themselves. Instead, the root of the problem lies at a different, much earlier, level of the educational chain, where young people’s interests and paths are defined.
In my experience of developing the eduvee educational multimedia and social platform for secondary school education in the UK, I have noticed that many of the today’s school age students would not consider a career in science. However, if you ask pupils if they want to work for a Facebook, Google or Apple, they would jump at the chance. These tech powerhouses are crying out for more engineers and scientists but students don’t equate science with these types of companies.
What can be done? And what is going wrong? Our classroom research shows that it is often difficult for students to make the connection between theory and the relevance to them. For example, if we consider a typical question from a student: “Miss, why do I need to know about the physics of mechanics?” A good question. All the teacher needs to do is to explain that Angry Birds—one of the most popular games ever in the app store—is based on motion of projectiles. This provides the “aha” moment for the student and shows how projectiles are relevant and the game itself encourages scientific experimentation.
Today’s school science curricula were not designed with the availability of the technology tools available today. It is up to educators, policy makers and scientists to utilise these tools and materials for students to engage with science at a younger age. The ubiquity of tablets and mobile phones means that students have devices with computational power that can bring science to life in ways that previously were not possible.
Schools across Europe and the world face the challenge of having to update classroom equipment and dog eared books. This is precisely where online technologies can help. Textbooks no longer need to be replaced as schools can buy electronic versions. These are automatically updated with the latest information. Besides, they can draw on examples that resonate with students. With the right technology and business models, the cost per student should drop significantly.
Science today requires the analysis of data and familiarity with computer models, be it for biology, chemistry or physics. Why not introduce students to these concepts through virtual labs? This would require fewer ticker tape experiments and more data analysis. These would present the added benefit of being setup using equipment that engages students.
Adapting to digital natives
Together with my colleagues, we have studied the possibilities of integrating all the science and teaching content available into a single platform. This allows students to learn at their own pace and in their own style. We want to help extend teaching and learning beyond the classroom. We are inviting today’s students to stretch their engagement and interest beyond the confinement and restrictions of both the classroom’s lessons and the teacher’s time.
Whilst mobile games work for one child, it may be that a teacher-led instructional video or a virtual lab is better for another child. Within an online system it is possible to gather all kinds of data points such as time of day studied, lessons viewed, questions successfully answered. All of this data helps to build a profile which can be analysed to understand what content and external factors result in the best learning for the student.
This type of system gets better over time as more data is gathered and is referred to as an adaptive learning platform. We are seeing the beginnings of such platforms. There is still a long way to go to deliver a truly personalised education experience that engages the user and improves educational outcomes.
With the right support from the scientific community and policy makers, we can revolutionise the way that science is taught in schools. This will ensure that we do not have the massive shortage of STEM graduates envisioned by many governments.
Note: We invite content contributions to the eduvee platform from STEM teachers. The value of our work and our technology grows incrementally with engaging and inspiring content. Contributions from teachers and academics are welcome and encouraged.
Featured image credit: CC BY-NC 2.0 by Tom Woodward
Go back to the Special Issue: The future of science education