Monday, 05 December 2016 10:28

STEM needs all the help it can get

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STEM — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics — is the future of all knowledge-based economies. Part of the Australian government’s plan for innovation is to get students to take STEM subjects in higher education.

The subject was discussed at the Spatial Environment Research Centre (SERC) Spatial Reasoning Seminar in Canberra.

Spatial reasoning is the capacity to think about objects in three or even four dimensions (length, breadth, width, and time) and draw conclusions — hopefully the right ones — from the information provided. Part of the SERC focus — a group of very dedicated people — is to deeply consider the impact of spatial reasoning on education and how that will impact tomorrow’s world.

In the good old days’ students learned by repetition creating a generation of children that could add up, subtract, multiply, divide in their heads and importantly spell words ingrained by many spelling bees. For want of a better word one can call these learned skills analytical.

As time progressed, teaching methods — pedagogy — turned to things like Cuisenaire rods for mathematics, phonetic spelling and an ever-increasing use of TV, images, graphics, and diagrams. This produced another generation of, for want of a better word, visualisers who solved problems visually. For example, to multiply three by three, they could imagine three rows of three dots and count them all to equal nine.

As we enter a new pedagogy, one driven using computers, tablets, virtual and mixed/augmented reality, old methods simply won’t produce the best and brightest, especially where STEM is concerned.

Tess Ariotti, Corporate Social Responsibility manager for Samsung Australia says Samsung has given a considerable grant to the University of Canberra (UC) and SERC including enough Android tablets, S7 Edge smartphones, and Gear VR headsets to outfit two classes. These are being used for “interventions”.

STEM LowrieAlso at the seminar was Professor Tom Lowrie, a Centenary Professor at UC who has an international research profile in the discipline area of mathematics education. Lowrie was not dry like a school maths teacher – he was animated, passionate and driven to discover the correlation between the use of graphical languages in mathematics, and its success in helping to learn, especially when applied to disadvantaged children.

His research shows that many students find STEM boring and difficult, hence, even in developed countries there is a decreasing student interest in participation in STEM. There are also gender and cultural disparities and imbalances related to STEM participation. In other words, no matter how much you encourage STEM education it is not enough to enable and support innovation that Australia desperately needs in the future.

There must be a better way. Lowrie says it is via learning using graphical languages (Jock Mackinlay’s framework) which includes Axis, Applied position, Retinal-list, Maps, Connection, and Miscellaneous.You can read a little more here (Table 1 – page 2). Using 10-week “intervention programmes” in Indonesia and Australia he has shown significant improvement in student’s ability to visualise and understand maths. With the help of Samsung, SERC is moving the programme to “digital” to take it further afield, especially to remote and disadvantaged communities.

Lowrie seems to be onto something – the use of spatial recognition programmes will increase the participation of all students in STEM and improve digital literacy.

The remainder of the seminar focused on the use of new teaching methods in VR (Samsung Gear VR headsets), AR (Samsung tablets), and Mixed Reality (Microsoft HoloLens).

Lowrie paraphrased Nate Turley saying, “There are no rules, there are no best practices, in this environment. It requires a massive shift in thinking. We will make a lot of the rules as we go so cross-disciplinary, radically collaborative, and iterative approaches are going to win out."

He finished his presentation with a quote from a 2014 study titled Active learning increases student performance in science, engineering, and mathematics. “Students in classes with traditional stand-and-deliver lectures are 1.5 times more likely to fail than students using active learning methods. It is almost unethical to be lecturing if you have this data,” Eric Mazure, Physicist Harvard University.

The writer attended the Spatial Environment Research Centre (SERC) Spatial Reasoning Seminar in Canberra as a guest of Samsung.

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Ray Shaw

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Ray Shaw [email protected]  has a passion for IT ever since building his first computer in 1980. He is a qualified journalist, hosted a consumer IT based radio program on ABC radio for 10 years, has developed world leading software for the events industry and is smart enough to no longer own a retail computer store!

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