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STEAM outside the classroom



Dr Michael Cowling, of CQUniversity, and Dr James Birt, of Bond University, look at how to address the role of technology in all aspects of students’ lives.

You might have noticed that, at the end of last year, a commercial by technology giant Apple caused a little bit of a fuss. No, it wasn’t in relation to the famous 1984 commercial directed by Ridley Scott, but rather a commercial they developed late last year of a young millennial girl using an iPad Pro as she travelled around town, chatting with friends, paying for goods, and doing her homework.

The fuss about this commercial was in particular at the last line, where the girl is lying on the grass behind her house using her device when somebody comes out onto to the porch and asks, “What are you doing on your computer?” To which the girl responds, “What’s a computer?”. It was this final line that caused the fuss, with pundits suggesting that Apple was implying that their device replaced a computer and that computers were an inferior product, destined for the scrap heap (despite them selling a successful Mac line for 40 years).

But fuss aside, the ad does start to make you think. If you’re teaching a primary school class today, then perhaps you are teaching a generation of students who will never use a device that resembles what we pre-millenials might consider a “computer”. As they move up the ranks of school, it’s entirely possible that students will find themselves using next-generation devices that perform all the functions of a desktop computer, but are not what we’d consider computing devices. This could even remain true as they move into work (don’t forget, it’s a good 15 years before these students move into the workforce if they study at university).

Of course, this doesn’t mean they don’t need computing skills. In fact, you could argue that computing skills are even more important for our upcoming students, as every device they interact with becomes more and more a computer, and computing becomes so much more a ubiquitous part of our everyday lives. With the rise of the Fourth Industrial Revolution, computing automation, artificial intelligence and major changes to the labour markets, the World Economic Forum places even more importance on the integration of technology, digital literacy and creative problem based learning.

So, given this, isn’t it beholden on us as educators to work out how technology fits into every aspect of the students’ lives? Not just within the STEAM classroom, but also in all other possible contexts? Although a perfect world scenario, the issue among teachers of the next generation is, firstly, how these technologies assist in pedagogy and, secondly, how students can use the technology effectively as digital knowledge workers of the future. In fact, a number of teachers themselves struggle with the rapid change and shift in the technology with ever increasing demands on their time.

Work that we are conducting in The CREATE Lab and The Mixed Reality Research Lab looks to bridge this gap. Where commonly a technology before pedagogy approach is used with IT managers buying equipment and asking educators to integrate into the classroom, we focus on the pedagogy, first exploring the problem at hand and then identifying where a technology solution may benefit the learning outcome. Beyond this the Labs are also thinking about how this model can be taken out of the STEAM classroom and making it a part of everyday activities.

Within The CREATE Lab, whether it’s the use of a robot as a robotic teaching assistant in the classroom, fielding student questions and building a knowledge base on answers they can use later; or the use of a Sphero robot to teach not only programming, but also history, and mathematics, and language; or the use of computing devices to deliver exams electronically, allowing students to view multimedia content in-situ with their exam, the concepts are intrinsically those that can be taken outside the STEAM classroom and used to enhance student knowledge and digital literacy across all contexts.

Similarly, work in The Mixed Reality Research Lab looks to add a digital layer to our physical world, seamlessly blending the two together so that students see no difference between the digital and the physical. Whether it’s using 3D printed tools and an augmented reality (AR)/virtual reality (VR) app for skill development, or AR/VR for knowledge acquisition, or the addition of AR to existing environments to link real world concepts with abstract symbolism for older students, all of the concepts rely on this blending of the physical with the digital, and exist outside the usual STEAM context.

In all cases, the key message is not teaching students to use technology or even creating the technology and examples yourself, but rather reminding them how seamlessly technology can fit into their lives. Of course, there is always a balance of technology and traditional methods, and we are in no way suggesting that the other methods be removed, but by weaving the technology into the fabric of the classroom, we provide methods to show students how digital can make their everyday interactions better, and improve their digital literacy with the world going forward. This allows the teacher to focus on inquiry-based learning having the students themselves think about the creative development.

Which makes the final challenge how to bring the necessary skills and knowledge out of the STEAM classroom and into the general classroom. Some schools are already doing this with digital technology officers and other admin staff, but in this, perhaps a page can be taken from the book of universities, where, just like a support area for academic skills and library skills, there also exists in many universities a support area for technology learning. More than just technology support, this area contains individuals that can help map pedagogy to technology, ensuring that a pedagogical problem is solved using the technology, rather than adding the technology to an area where it’s not needed. These educational designers must not only have a pedagogy before technology mindset, but also well-developed technical skills, freeing up the teachers to focus on inquiry and not chasing the latest fad or working out how to integrate the latest purchased equipment item into their classroom to work into someone else’s KPIs.

In this way, we can prepare our students for a life where computers are simultaneously everywhere and nowhere in their lives.