The National Science Foundation (NSF) has awarded a $3.2 million grant to nonprofit technology corporation SRI International to create a program aimed at encouraging computer science students to pursue careers developing educational software. The goal: to produce more high-quality educational software for K-12 classrooms.

SRI, in collaboration with Stanford University and the University of Colorado at Boulder, will design university courses to train undergraduates, publish online resources, and recruit experienced mentors through a program called TRAILS, which stands for Training and Resources for Assembling Interactive Learning Systems.

Together, education and computer science students from Stanford and Colorado will work in teams to develop prototypical educational software and pilot its use in local K-12 classrooms next fall. The Math Forum at Drexel University, one of the world’s largest mathematics web sites for K-12 students and teachers, plans to publish selected software created by TRAILS students.

“There isn’t as much good software around as we’d like,” said Jennifer Knudsen, educational researcher at SRI’s Center for Technology in Learning. “We believe there is a need to broaden the pool.”

When it comes to software, classrooms have different needs compared with businesses and typical consumers, Knudsen pointed out. In a classroom, the software is used by 30 people at the same time. The teacher needs to manage learning objectives, engage the students, teach concepts, foster collaboration, and assess individual performance.

Good software also should encourage students to solve problems, model concepts, and think critically, she added.

Many educational technology advocates have identified a scarcity of high-quality educational software as a barrier to integrating technology effectively into the classroom.

Developing high-quality online educational content that meets the highest standards of educational excellence was one of the key recommendations made the Congressional Web-based Education Commission, a bipartisan federal panel charged with making proposals for the future of educational technology back in 2000.

In addition, two-thirds of teachers indicated a need for more and better educational software, according to the 1999 “Technology Counts” report from Education Week (see http://www.eschoolnews.com/news/showStory.cfm?ArticleID=371).

Initially, undergrads will develop software that reinforces math skills. As the project matures, TRAILS will expand its focus to science and other subjects.

TRAILS will attempt to address classroom software needs by involving experienced teachers, complementing the role of textbooks, and aligning content to accepted academic standards.

Ultimately, project leaders hope computer science students will gain a better understanding of how to develop software that meets the needs of K-12 classrooms, in addition to experiencing first-hand the benefits of interdisciplinary collaboration.

“There aren’t that many programmers who deeply understand education,” Knudsen said.

Project leaders also hope that pre-service teachers will begin their teaching careers with greater confidence about their mathematics knowledge and how to communicate it effectively with the help of technology.

TRAILS builds on another SRI research project funded by NSF, called Educational Software Components of Tomorrow (ESCOT). In this project, professional programmers and teachers worked together to create small software programs that teachers used as supplemental tools to reinforce concepts or problems of the week.

Unlike ESCOT, however, TRAILS targets undergraduates instead of professionals.

Links:

TRAILS: Training and Resources for Assembling Interactive Learning Systems
http://www.trails-project.org

National Science Foundation
http://www.nsf.gov

SRI International’s Center for Technology in Learning
http://www.sri.com/policy/ctl

ESCOT: Educational Software Components of Tomorrow
http://www.escot.org