How and what emerging technologies are changing science learning in schools

Computer programming, robotics, virtual laboratories, educational video games, 3D printing, photonics, nanotechnology… The latest emerging technologies are already in the schools and offer promising options in order to make the best use of teaching of STEAM subjects (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts and Mathematics). The European sySTEAM programme, in which FCRi is involved, aims to increase the educational use of STEM technologies in the classroom.

Under this project, FCRi has studied the state of the art of a wide range of advances and emerging scientific areas -some considerably more mature than others- with different possibilities and experience, at present applicable to schools.  All those technologies have the same teaching benefit: they enable us to implement a learning model based on interdisciplinary projects, putting questions down and solving problems.

The FCRi report has focused on eight of the most promising STEM technologies to become part of the pre-university education system: the use of different computer programming languages; robotics; virtual laboratories; educational videogames; low-cost experiments; 3D printing; optics/photonics and nanotechnology. But what is their current availability status?

Programming skills in computer languages took time to be developed in schools because of under-investment in personal computers resulting from the recession in the 1990s in Europe. It was not until the turn of the century, which coincided with a period of economic growth in Europe in 2004-2008, did computer programming return with force to the early stages of education. Lower hardware costs and good graphic performance popularised Scratch (developed in 2015 and partially inspired by Logo) as the standard visual programming language, based on manipulating interactive blocks rather than writing lines of code. In this paradigm, other languages have emerged to improve some features that have not yet been completely perfected in Scratch. At present, programming is included in the academic curriculum as a part of computer skills and new technologies at all stages of education in most EU Member States, and it is considered a key skill in the training of the future citizens.

Programming work at the primary and secondary school level provides children with a series of cross-disciplinary skills promoting critical and logical thinking; problem solving; implementation of strategies; analysis and evaluation of algorithms; teamwork, and, in general, a creative approach to reality.

In addition, from an educational point of view, classroom robotics applications allow us to work on aspects that can hardly be addressed only by purely theoretical schemes. In this sense, translating formal concepts into reality is a major challenge for students because the robot’s interactions with the real world force the programmer to deal with inaccurate data, variable stimuli and imperfect elements. Other positive aspects of using robotics in the classroom are more transversal, such as students’ motivation, because they can perceive the practical and experimental approach as a game. Robots simulating human expressions and precision games are practical examples for classroom use.

Remote Virtual labs (such as Go-Lab Project, ChemCollective, 3D Labs UPM, Labster, VISIR …) provide a great opportunity to work on various aspects of the academic curriculum as well as cross-cutting skills. In many cases, the resources used in these systems allow people to mentally visualise processes that would be difficult to transmit otherwise. Virtual labs enable experiments that cannot be carried out in a school lab due to hazard or cost (nuclear exploration or genomic techniques, for example). In order for a virtual or remote lab to be effective in an educational context, they must appeal to students. That is why the current trend is to use gamification and 3D immersion strategies. The aim is to transform a static activity in front of a screen into an immersive experience that pursues a stimulating objective.

Under this new ecosystem, the STEM-based video games (quiz games and apps) games may activate important social mechanisms, such as problem solving, empathy and teamwork. This is consistent with the idea of “learning by doing”, but interaction with a teacher is still necessary.

The popularisation of science, as we know it today, began in 1980 in the mass media with science shows such as Cosmos and others, is generally regarded as the first origin of the low-cost experimentation as educational resource. The purpose is to design and developed STEM scientific experiments that can be included in the school curriculum based on recycled or reused materials, such as empty plastic bottles or used straws. This new approach enables teachers to develop concepts form many subjects, such as physics, chemistry, biology… in order to make classes more dynamic and appealing and boosting motivation.

3D Printing and Optics, Photonics and Nanotechnology are, according to the FCRi’s report, new emerging subjects which have a considerable potential in STEM teaching, but they are at very early stage for classroom use.

Project sySTEAM – systematic approach for implementation of STEAM education in schools (2017-1-LT01-KA201-035288) is co-funded by the Erasmus+ Programme of the European Union. Project is implemented by Virolai E.M.S.A., Kiviõli I High School, Vilnius Žemynos Gymnasium, Catalan Foundation for Research and Innovation, Sihtasutus Omanäolise Kooli Arenduskeskus, Knowledge Economy Forum.