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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Connecting with the Natural World

Technology can help connect students to people in the outside world, people they would probably not meet otherwise because of the isolated nature of classrooms; because it costs too much to bring guest speakers in, or to take students on outings. Digital technology is a wonderful tool for learning and teaching. But we shouldn't let technology obliterate our humanness.

The winter solstice has just been upon us. We are in the so-called dead of winter. Days are short and nights are long. In many areas of the world it's cold outside, and while kids are out of school for winter vacation, are they stepping away from the computer and the television? I wonder. I hope so.

I'm old enough to remember a childhood when no matter how cold or how dark, we'd take one more run on the sled or the skis by the moonlight or the lamplight until the sound of our mothers calling us to come home could no longer be ignored. There is something so important about connecting with the natural world that no matter how many S.T.E.M. professionals students meet online, those connections aren't enough to inspire a child, to provide them with authentic experiences of life on this planet.

I hope school children will spend these vacation days mucking in the snow, digging in the dirt, building forts in trees.  I hope they will feel icy wind on their cheeks and the welcome warmth of winter's sun on a frigid afternoon when they're simply having too much fun to notice that their toes are freezing inside their boots.

Not that long ago we learned about the sun and the moon and the earth because it was our immediate environment. We lived on the earth, rather than watching it on a television screen. I recently watched an amazing documentary about Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. In 2900 BC settlers in the canyon were what we might call astronomers and archaeologists. They built great temples in alignment with the sun without the help of computers or sophisticated measuring tools. They lived their lives in alignment with celestial events, including the Winter Solstice.

While children at all grade levels should be aware of career opportunities in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, they should also be able to answer the question: "What is my relationship to the sun?" They should be able to answer the question from personal experiences of exploring their world away from the computer.

Back in the classroom, at the end of winter break, the magic and wonder of digital technologies will provide enrichment opportunities like The Exploratorium, a dynamic place for kids to explore the ocean floor and outer space and all the in-between. Webcasts hosted by scientists provide first-hand experiences in places like Chaco Canyon. Earlier this evening I watched a webcast of the Winter Solstice that had originally been streamed live from one of the ancient canyon temples, an amazing indoor exploration of the outdoor world.

If you have young children at home, take them for a walk in the dark and talk to them about the waxing moon and about the solstice. If they get a chance later on to interact with an astronomer online, they will have first-hand knowledge and their excitement will be all the greater.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

Curiosity Leads to Passion

Are you a parent, teacher, or adult community member? If your answer to any of these is yes, odds are you are an unwitting role-model. Kids are curious about adults. Child's play is centered around imitating what they see adults do in their day-to-day lives.

Youngsters aren't so much interested in "careers" as they are in the adults who function in various roles. They are naturally curious, says Jay Matheson, Coordinator of Technology and Media Services at one of twenty regional education service districts in Oregon. Jay's project, Extending Career Options for Rural Students was the inspiration for Connecting Students to STEM Careers . "I don't know if kids are really curious about jobs, but they are curious about adults and about what adults do. You never know when you're going to come across an interest in a child."

Young people in classrooms around the world are also interested in each other, in cultures and social environments different than their own, or located in a different town, state, or country. With the advent of social media, we as world citizens are becoming more and more connected. The concept of a melting pot has taken a virtual twist. Students can build relationships with peers in classrooms on the other side of the world. They are connecting with scientists, educators, doctors, authors....It's about developing relationships, satisfying curiosity, and stumbling upon a passion that might change the course of someone's life.

There is a classroom partnership program called ePals that provides a platform for students to collaborate from classroom to classroom, from country to country. A Global Learning Community, ePals serves millions of students in approximately 200 countries, supporting student-to-student distance collaborations through the use of blogs and wikis, podcasts and videocasts. Partnerships are also established in simple formats such as emails, supported by translation services, file-sharing and virus protection.

Through online programs like ePals, kids  learn how to develop relationships and satisfy basic curiosities about life in the outside world. With the guidance of parents and teachers, these relationships can help inform them about the world, about the importance of what they are doing in the classroom.

If you are aware of similar applications for K-12 students, please feel free to share.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Is S.T.E.M. Picking up S.T.E.A.M.?

Most of us would agree that the arts help us develop a greater appreciation and understanding of the world around us. It could also be said that it's science, technology, engineering, and mathematics that helps us interpret our world.

Lately there's been a lot of talk about the need to add arts into the S.T.E.M. equation. In other words, STEM<STEAM.

In a December 7 article in Education Week, Erik Robelen provides a balanced overview about the momentum gathering behind an organized movement to demonstrate the connection and combine arts with STEM initiatives.

There are big guns behind the movement. NSF is providing grants and sponsoring conferences. They recently helped launch a project called The Art of Science Learning, a formalized exploration of how the arts can strengthen STEM skills, "...and spark creativity in the 21st-Century American workforce."

In my book, Connecting Students to STEM Careers, I talk with Dr. Patricia Galloway, a renowned civil engineer and past Vice-Chair of the National Science Board. It was her love of art that first made the connection for her with her field in engineering. Listening to a presentation by a civil engineer professor as a young woman, she quickly made the connection and found the intersection between her art and a career as a civil engineer.

There are many different ways that right brain and left brain perceptions and creations intersect. Art helps young students understand abstract concepts and encourages us to think outside the box, as all great inventors and innovators have done.

Robelen concludes that the jury is still out on the research. And some say, can't we enjoy art for art's sake? Not all aesthetics are engineers. True. But most engineers rely on their creative powers; technologists are problem-solvers who rely on their ability to look at the world in many ways.  Robelen talked with a biology professor who once served on the National Research Council's Board on Science Education. She is not on the bandwagon all together. She agrees there are ways the arts and STEM work together, but, she says, "...they are very different ways of knowing the world." That, in my opinion, is possibly WHY they should go together.

I am STEAMed up. As a matter of fact, it's possible that many of today's students will find their way into technology careers through their creative endeavors in the classroom with video and other digital tools, through the use of social media to explore the fields of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

Professional Development Online

 In my last post I said that "...teachers in the know..." can help children of all ages connect to career awareness resources using the wealth of digital tools now available. It's that " the know" part that's tricky. How can busy classroom teachers keep up with a digital world that changes and expands every day? And it is important to keep up. We can't guide child safely through shark-infested waters if we don't know how to swim.

It's also critical for school distircts to support teachers by providing and supporting ongoing and embedded professional development. When I say embedded, I mean that it's part of the culture of the work environment and the teaching and learning environment of the school. That doesn't mean that teachers have to be gone all the time attending workshops.

There are numerous resources, good resources, available online to supplement face-to-face teacher training. One of my favorites are programs offerred by PBS: PBS TeacherLine and PBS LearningMedia. Teacher Line courses are credit-bearing college level courses covering a range of teacher education modules from teaching math to STEM education in the classroom. (Note: There are two new classes starting on PBS Teacher Line on January 25 and again on February 29, 2012.)

PBS LearningMedia is a brand-new resource for teachers offering classrom-ready curriculum content in digital media format.Their collection already includes over 16,000 digital resources in the arts and in science, for example, and professional development. The site offers a content management system, teacher and classroom accounts, student access, and the content is standards-aligned. It's all online and educators have access at their convenience.

PBS updated and expanded TeacherLine in 2009, and several of the online courses now focus on strategies and techniques for incorporating digital tools into instruction. There are close to 200 graduate-level courses, and several are designed to guide teachers in Web 2.0 collaboration skills, digital literacy skills, digital citizenship, and use of Web 2.0 tools such as blogs, wikis, and social media networking sites.

Part of being a teacher in the know is knowing where to access resources to keep updated in order to swim along with the kids. And don't be afraid to let your students be your teachers too.

Wednesday, December 7, 2011

Grade Levels for S.T.E.M. Career Awareness

Last night I was at a book fair with the STEM careers book and got a chance to talk to people face-to-face about the concept of career awareness for kids. Some were educators, some parents, even a few home schoolers. Most wanted to know what was a good age to start career exploration. A few commented that it was for high school students. Au contraire, career exploration could, and should, begin in the elementary grades. It makes sense that from the very beginning, kids have an underlying understanding of why they are in school, that they have a future, that the world is larger and more complex than they can imagine. Most importantly, that they can do whatever they want. They can follow their dreams and they will succeed. But dreams need a context, or a framework. If the dream is to save animals, how does that parlay into a career and a job that will support them and make them happy?

The elementary students in the picture are talking to astronauts at NASA. They are having an interactive conversation with an adult they would never have otherwise met if it weren't for the videoconference equipment in their school. Kids are curious about the lives of adults and they ask questions about how did they get to be astronauts. This experience will stick with them for a long time and certain classes may have more meaning as they work their way through school. They will remember the astronaut who told them that he or she had to study math, science, engineering, and technology on their way to becoming as astronaut.

It is especially life-changing for a young girl to encounter a female scientist or engineer. She learns that girls can do all kinds of things in life, anything that boys can do, anything they want to do.

By the time students are in middle school they are beginning to form real interests that can be nutured by role models and mentors. There are many many professional organizations that now have a presence on the Internet and most offer programs online for K-12 students and teachers. A link or RSS feed from a relevant site could provide dynamic information feeds for classrooms. NASA is a good example, but in just about any area of interest, from science to the arts, there are professional organizations with websites and Facebook pages, Nings and blogs that are informative and safe.

Technology in the classroom can be used effectively by teachers in the know to broaden the world for students of all ages. When they interact with researchers, field-workers, and all kinds of professionals doing work that young people are interested in, learning takes on a new dimension. If the student whose dream it is to save endangered species has opportunities to interact with scientists at the Audubon Society, to see what they do, learn what their job is called, they are at once engaged in life and in learning.

Monday, December 5, 2011

Oregon Authors Book Fair

I'll be at the Willamette Writers Annual Author's Book Fair in Portland, Oregon, on Tuesday night, December 6. The event is free and there will be an array of novelists and non-fiction writers on-hand to talk to readers and to provide information about their books.

My two books for educators: Connecting Students to S.T.E.M. Careers and Videoconferencing for K-12 Classrooms will be offered at a 30% discount (regular I.S.T.E. member price).

Where: The Old Church, corner of 11th & Clay, downtown Portland, Oregon

When: Tuesday, December 6, 7:00 p.m.

Saturday, December 3, 2011

Most Popular I.S.T.E. Book!

The International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE), publisher of my book, announced yesterday that the S.T.E.M. book is flying off the shelf. In an email sent to all of their members, they said, "We know STEM is a hot topic, and in November we saw that first-hand as Connecting Students to S.T.E.M. Careers flew off our shelves!"

As part of Computer Science Education Week, today through December 9, they are offering 10% off the price of this book, and two of their other best-sellers: Getting Started with LEGO Robotics and The Computer Lab Teacher's Survival Guide.