The Atlantic hosted a series of panels today in Washington. Panelists were drawn from government, higher education and nonprofit organizations. The topic was twofold: STEM education, and STEM in education. The first is how to improve our education learn science and math, the second is to use science and math to improve how our children learn.
The Khan Academy was brought up a few times in passing, and I have blogged about it and TED-Ed on this blog before. In short, online videos are an innovative (or at least new – don’t confuse the two) distribution method, but the pedagogy remains rooted in the lecture and standardized testing. Khan in particular is old wine in a new bottle. For further criticism, I direct you to Frank Noschese. High school physics teachers like him were conspicuously absent from the panel, along with actual programmers, mathematicians, and engineers.
Most of the discussion focussed on video games, both as a means of conveying information and a tool to teach programming. While there is some semblance of content in educational games, the real learning occurs only for the game maker, not the game player. Some panelists even advocated non-educational games. Joel Levin of TeacherGaming LLC talked about a version of Minecraft marketed towards the education market. He discussed how issues of digital citizenship and law emerged from the game’s cooperative construction mechanic. Most panelists agreed that the games did not foster these positive experiences without the involvement of a trained teacher, and would otherwise devolve into a “Lord of the Flies scenario”.
What I see is the separation of the many good elements we want to teach our children, falling roughly in to two camps. Videos like Khan’s presents advanced content, and videos prompt individual contemplation and mechanistic skills. Games like Levin’s promote problem solving, critical thinking, social interaction, and motivation. Each side lacks the qualities of the other. Physics in games is incorrect; physics in videos is boring. Games inspire; videos empower.
Is there anything that can bridge this gap? Indeed there is, and I did not see it mentioned at the conference. FIRST is a robotics program for children that is as motivating as it is educational. There are multiple leagues for different ages and budgets, but the one I’m familiar presents high school students with a non-trivial (real-world) game, almost a sport, with a field and game pieces. Six weeks later, they are expected to ship a robot that plays that game. In between, they must analyze the game, critically assessing possible strategies. Unlike student project video games, there is enough work for a dozens of kids, facilitating teamwork and organization. But there’s plenty of practical knowledge to be learned and used: everything from mechanical engineering and computer programming to machine shop skills and accounting. Of particular interest is that although the panelists extolled the internet’s ability to distribute and equalize information, and as a platform for games and simulations, FIRST takes place in the real, physical world. FIRST is not a simulation of an engineering project, it is an engineering project, complete with deadlines, budgets, height and weight limits, industrial materials, a difficult challenge.