Technology — from laptop computers to virtual reality headsets — offers other ways for educators to create immersive experiences for students, such as VR field trips through Google Expeditions, or more elaborate setups in dedicated spaces, such as the space travel simulations at the Challenger Learning Center.
For example, JASON Learning, a nonprofit organization, offers videos, articles that can be read aloud in a native speaker’s voice, games and other interactive elements to engage K–12 students in STEM topics ranging from geology to engineering. Its core weather unit, for instance, uses a game to challenge students to view radar maps and data overlays to make storm predictions, teaching concepts such as extreme weather formation and what causes a hurricane to increase in intensity or change path. “Eventually, they’re in Miami and learn it’s going to be a Category 4 hurricane,” says Sean Smith, CIO and COO of JASON Learning. “At the end of the game, they’re told, ‘Here’s what actually happened’ — because the game is based on real data sets from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. We do everything we can to connect kids with real science.”Students, Smith says, sometimes utilize learning elements at their own pace; content can also be viewed in a classroom environment, with smaller groups discussing what they’ve watched.
“Kids are exposed to different disciplines: listening, design thinking,” he says. “They start problem-solving naturally but design a solution that keeps it at the right temperature and physically protected.”
Students often will have an epiphany, seeing themselves in the role of the professionals they learn about through games or other content, he says. “That’s a great moment.”
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Taking Learning to the ‘Next Level’
In Woodstock, district administrators have a similar goal for seamless connections between classrooms and students’ experiences at the Challenger Learning Center.
The Woodstock learning center is part of a global network of 44 operations providing interactive space mission simulations for students. The Woodstock school district took over the center in spring 2019 from Aurora University in Aurora, Ill. District leaders’ academic goals inspired elements of the center’s redesign.
“We wanted to make sure we could offer the same experience — and move that experience to the next level,” says George Oslovich, director of technology for Woodstock schools. “We tried to expand the activities and tie them even more closely back to some of the learning standards in Illinois in the science and technology area.”
The district transformed storage space and a former locker room in Olson Elementary School into a replica mission control room, space station, laboratory and transport room — the setting for student-centered simulated space expeditions combined with STEM lessons such as programming robots and coding. Working with an expert from CDW, district leaders’ vision for the space expanded from just hanging LCD projectors to designing a more interactive experience and making the center a showplace, Oslovich says.
Technology is interwoven into the experience, from Promethean interactive whiteboards to Dell PCs and intercoms students use to communicate during missions, he says.
“We really feel we’re at the early stages of understanding how impactful the equipment we have is,” Oslovich says.
Woodstock fifth graders take annual trips to the center, which is also open to the broader community. Students “work with their classmates in a different environment, have roles and are responsible for the mission being successful,” says Krueger. “We’re trying to promote a lot of problem- solving, collaboration, kids working together; there’s a lot of development in oral language, speaking and analyzing in activities we do — as well as sparking an interest in a career in science.” The simulated space missions at the center also have real-world applications for students’ postsecondary goals.
“The whole Challenger experience brings all those pieces together and helps kids see how in real life, you use these skills together, not in isolation,” Oslovich says.
The learning doesn’t end when students leave the center. After visiting the center, teachers have asked about using Airtame adaptors and replicating other aspects of the experience at their schools, Oslovich says.
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Investing in STEAM
Hands-on, immersive learning doesn’t have to happen in a separate, elaborately designed space. In Ector County (Texas) Independent School District, for example, students process materials for paleontologists and researchers. Jason Osborne, the district’s chief innovation officer, partners with area universities, businesses and other organizations to create citizen science (or crowdsourced research) experiences for students in paleontology, bioengineering and other high-level sciences.
The district is rolling out a virtual reality solution that enables students to simulate tracing brain tissue, he says. Another VR option creates a safe environment in which to expose students with limited physical mobility to skills such as auto mechanics.
“We’re trying to enhance students’ natural curiosity and have them do real hands-on learning with real data,” Osborne says. “Even at a very young age, if students have something that they’re naturally curious about, the teachers get excited, students get excited, and the ownership of learning is amplified as well.”
In Arizona, Scottsdale Unified School District is leveraging immersive experiences for a greater emphasis on STEAM instruction. For the past six years, the district has used the Discovery Education Science Techbook, a platform content, to supplement its hands-on science program. Scottsdale students have access to resources such as step-by-step explanations of math concepts as well as illustrations, videos and descriptions that define vocabulary words in an interactive glossary. “We wanted to have the technology and interactive online resources along with hands-on activities,” says Barbara Reinert, the district’s K–12 science curriculum academic coach. “If you just put kids in front of a computer, you don’t necessarily get anything other than a lecture. What we know about blended learning is it gives you the biggest growth for student achievement.”
Scottsdale schools already use Chromebooks and other mobile devices in classes. To prepare for the added tech, the district IT team updated campus access points and installed more routers earlier this year, Reinert says. That’s all part of an ongoing effort to find dynamic ways to teach STEAM and put students on paths for future success, she says.
In October, the Scottsdale governing board approved spending $126,000 for a plan that supports a greater STEAM focus at two elementary schools and includes training for teachers. Students will also receive STEAM-focused digital content based on the four C’s — creativity, collaboration, communication and critical thinking — through Discovery Education’s STEM Connect K–8 platform.
The new approach will be more inquiry-based, with students asking and answering questions through research.
“The goal is to have STEAM learning infused throughout the day, every day — into literacy and math,” Reinert says. “There are so many jobs available right now that involve STEAM. We have to change the skill set kids are leaving school with so they’re able to solve world problems and be part of the global economy.”