Why STEM education could get a transformative makeover—soon

Industry, research to improve innovation in edtech for early STEM learning.

Engaging young children in STEM is critical for creating a lifelong love of learning and for developing critical thinking skills which will serve them well across all academic disciplines and prepare them for the 21st Century workforce.  The recently released report, STEM Starts Early: Grounding Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math Education in Early Childhood by the Joan Ganz Cooney Center and New America is a summary of current research and makes critical recommendations for both STEM communication to parents and future research in early childhood STEM.

The appropriate use of innovative education technologies will be an essential component to bringing STEM to children wherever they live as part of a well-balanced set of active learning experiences with educators and parents. These technology tools can potentially play a significant role in bridging STEM with literacy, the arts, and social-emotional learning.

Researchers should Partner with Teachers, DARPA

One recommendation from the STEM Starts Early report is, “Program designers should encourage studies that enable a two-way street between research and practice.” In addition to ensuring that program design includes both researchers and active educators, alternative models for conducting research and development activities need to be considered.

Federal and private programs typically employ two separate modes of research, “basic” and “applied” used in a highly-structured program format. But there is another model which is more likely to produce transformational innovation in technology development rapidly. As I’ve written in the past, the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) provides an excellent alternative model for conducting rapid-cycle research aimed at transformational innovation.

DARPA programs typically look ten to twenty years into the future to identify bold “grand challenges” or “moonshots” for technology development and develops three to four year programs to tackle them. Much of the basic research for these moonshots does not exist at the outset of a DARPA program.

The DARPA approach involves an iterative basic research process leading to an applied goal. This approach reduces the possibility of having disconnects between the basic research program and the future application. It also ensures that basic research is continually informing the design of the final product. The details of the ultimate goal remain flexible and will change continuously throughout development.

The other critical part of this process is that DARPA programs are interdisciplinary and recruit the best talent from across academia and industry, including talent from outside the area of interest. Instead of pushing funding to a single performer, DARPA programs implement a pull-strategy where they build teams from the best and most innovative people. This mix of perspectives and program flexibility foster successful innovations.

In this manner, DARPA has been responsible for the development of the internet, miniaturized GPS systems, speech recognition, and many other technologies that have transformed the military and civilian culture.

(Next page: What does the future look like for STEM education?)


5 school areas that desperately need student voices

Too often schools make decisions on student learning without consulting actual students. Here’s how to change this antiquated practice.

As a graduate journalism student over 20 years ago, I worked on a thesis project centered on education reform news reporting. I was analyzing how often education reporters included students in their stories about education. Probably no surprise…it was almost non-existent.

Traditionally, no entity has ignored their primary customer, consumer or constituent more than education with students. I was fortunate enough early on as a beginning teacher to discover the power of student voice and student-generated ideas. Throughout my career, I have always benefited from asking my students what they thought, what they are interested in and where they would like things to go.

If we are serious about providing each and every student a truly transformational 21st century education, then we should consider including student voices in the following five school areas:

1. Learning Feedback

Having our students reflect on their learning and learning experiences are crucial to both student development and instructional growth. As teachers, we do a lot of things to improve our craft. But again, we rarely ask our students what is working for them and what we can do to help improve their learning experiences.

In general, students are both honest and willing to discuss what is going on with their education. Great teachers have always probably asked—formally or informally—how their students are doing and what can be better. But it’s time to make this a standard. We now have the ability for all educators to regularly engage all of their students about their learning.

If we want higher levels of learning, critical thinking and skills, we’re going to need to learn to get regular feedback from the most important player in education—the student.

2. Curricular Choice

With the onset of personalized tech and learning, we now have an unlimited number of ways to offer choice to our students. Higher forms of learning are predicated on the learner owning larger aspects of the learning itself. This happens through choice. If it’s a project, let’s offer different ways of delivering the final product. If it’s a research topic, let’s offer choices on various options. If it’s something to read, let’s not have students read the same thing, but rather read different things and then compare.

Choice not only creates buy-in and ownership necessary for higher-level learning, but creates an environment and learning culture that fosters innovation, confidence, risk taking and other necessary future skills. Efforts like #20 Time Projects, Genius Hour, and more are also great examples of allowing students greater freedom in the authentic learning they pursue.

(Next page: Including student voices in 3 more school areas)


The 3 biggest Twitter problems for teachers—and how to overcome them

In the digital age, teacher discomfort in using some social media can have a direct effect on students’ digital literacy skills. Here are some solutions.

Despite clear advantages to advancing digital literacy, schools often experience considerable roadblocks to implementing digital literacy initiatives. Interestingly, accessibility often isn’t the biggest factor blocking this process—more often than not, it comes down to a teacher’s own comfort with social media.

Teachers with little to no training on how to integrate digital literacy exercises into the classroom run the risk of compromising their students’ development of valuable soft skills that can produce educational and professional career advantages.

For the past three years, Rutgers Alternate Route has supported new teachers in boosting their digital literacy, by hosting edtech workshops, sharing digital resources on social media, and leading hosted discussions on LinkedIn and Twitter. After surveying 165 teachers part of these workshops, responses indicated that social media is arguably the most challenging digital tool for teachers to guide students in navigating, in large part because many school districts block students from accessing social networks when on school grounds.

Also, while teacher feedback on LinkedIn was overwhelmingly positive, feedback on Twitter was contentious. While most teachers appreciated our push for them to engage with both networks, a sizeable minority adamantly disfavored Twitter.

Three key obstacles emerged from their objections, leading Rutgers Alternate Route to address how these problems can be solved, perhaps with some digital literacy know-how.

Twitter Problem #1: Personal Privacy Concerns

“I do not like to have a presence on social media to protect my privacy.”

Many teachers refrain from using social media due to concerns of scrutiny from students, parents or even other educators. They also worry that students will attempt to communicate with them inappropriately. While maintaining distance from students is very important for teachers’ professional and personal well-being, teachers with Twitter privacy concerns can still safely and privately reap the professional benefits of social media by following any or all of these steps:

  • Set up a new account: The simplest way for teachers to resolve Twitter privacy concerns and establish professional boundaries is to create a Twitter account separate from their personal account.
  • Set up a Twitter account under a pseudonym: By refraining from using their full name, teachers can post tweets without fear of public scrutiny and reap the benefits of live Twitter-hosted education chats such as #NJEdchat.
  • Change default account settings so that tweets are private: With private tweets, teachers have the ability to accept or deny follower requests from other Twitter users. Only approved accounts will be able to see the teacher’s tweets. All tweets, including those posted with hashtags, will only appear on the feed of approved account followers. While this protects teachers from unwanted scrutiny, it also limits teachers’ ability to fully engage in live Twitter-hosted education chats.

With these tips, fielding social media requests from students doesn’t have to be one more piece of work that teachers have to bring home with them after a long day.  What’s more, teachers can apply their newly acquired digital literacy in advising students on how to protect their identity online and avoid unwanted scrutiny.

(Next page: 2 more teacher Twitter problems addressed)


How school districts are leveraging Twitter to become rock stars

In a climate where Twitter is the center of so many tempestuous news stories, schools should be turning to the social media giant now more than ever—here’s why.

When a student tweets at their school’s Twitter handle, chances are they don’t expect a response–it’s like tweeting at Starbucks, or the Office of the Comptroller of the Currency—you feel like you’re talking to an entity that’s far too busy and important to ever respond to you. That’s why students in Georgia’s Cherokee County School District were so surprised when they tweeted their district, begging for a snow day—and their district tweeted right back.

Not only did the district respond, but the responses were sassy and high-spirited. When one student asked why the district was ruining her life, the district responded, “I have the club for you: drama. It’s so you.”

In a climate where Twitter is the center of so many tempestuous news stories, thanks to our Twitter-happy president, schools should be turning to the social media giant more than ever to share news, gather feedback, benefit from other educators’ expertise, react instantly to breaking news—and sometimes just lighten the mood.

Here’s how innovative school districts across the country are leveraging Twitter to become rock stars:

1. By Hash(tag)ing Out Ideas

Stuck in lesson plan purgatory? Twitter’s a great place to spitball ideas with your peers. For example, when an educator in the Metropolitan School District of Warren Township in Marion County, IN wants to figure out a problem or brainstorm a new lesson idea, they don’t have to wait for the next teacher in-service. They just start tweeting.

The district created the hashtag #warrenbl to facilitate real-time discussions where teachers can share successes, commiserate over problems, and look for solutions. Last fall, they discussed physical layouts in the classroom, and whether or not it’s okay to use the same one for the entire day.

The responses came fast and furious. “HA! Sometimes 1 design feels like it barely works for 10 minutes,” tweeted Sarah Keller, an instructional specialist. “Our previous custodian called me Martha [Stewart] for changing up my classroom so often,” joked fourth-grade teacher Kyle Reeves. Second-grade teacher Stephanie Faust adds: “What works for a student in the morning, may not work in the afternoon.”

Administrators at Warren say the spontaneity of these exchanges is part of the point of #warrenbl. “Originally, when we started Twitter chats with hashtags, we just wanted a way for people to collaborate in a way that’s most effective for them,” said Ryan Russell, the district’s assistant to the Superintendent. “What we found was that it was a safe, less intimidating way to share about practice in a way that a lot of our staff was using to communicating anyway.”

2. Jump into a Larger Convo

Wondering what to tweet about? Pull up a chair and join one of the informative, lightening-fast ed-themed discussions that are happening online right now. An Internet search for popular hashtags among educators turns up dozens of the frequently used keywords like #Education, #Learning, and #FutureReady, which was created by The U.S. Department of Education’s Office of Education Technology.  Superintendents can join #suptchat to share successes in their districts, discuss what they’re learning at conferences, and pose questions to other educators.

Another popular education hashtag, #WhatIsSchool, started by Laura Hill and Craig Kemp, accompanies teacher Twitter chats on Thursday evenings. The conversations focus on “re-imagining the future of education.” During one chat last December, for example, educators explored ways to use the holiday season to expand students’ understanding of other cultures.

“#WhatIsSchool is one of those forums that sprang up organically and took off like wildfire,” Hill wrote in a blog post. “That can only mean one thing: the ideas and topics discussed are immensely important to . . . thousands of educators around the globe.”

At my own organization, we’ve used the hashtag #whyipersonalize to encourage conversations around personalized learning successes and to get people to reflect on their goals and why they engage in this work. At our Personalized Learning Summit the last two years, we started using #plsummit to tag related tweets; we’ve seen the hashtag to continue to be used to share resources throughout the year. It is a great way for educators across the country to stay in touch.

If a school is on social media, it needs a hashtag, says Andrea Gribble, a social media specialist for schools. “Encouraging the use of one hashtag for all things related to your school will be extremely helpful in getting your story out to the world,” she said. Russell agrees, pointing out that even members of the U.S. Department of Education have followed and commented on his district’s hashtags.

Social media has been accused of keeping people in a bubble, but it can also help uninspired educators break out of theirs.

(Next page: More tips for leveraging Twitter for district success)


Stunning: Teachers, students say little has really changed in education

Is K-12 innovation not really happening? New survey indicates that educators, students are frustrated with outdated and heavily traditional classroom practices.

One in four educators participating in a recent survey said their schools are “very traditional,” and findings indicate that these traditional approaches could be holding students and teachers back from more innovative experiences.

The Schools of Hope survey, from learning experience design firm MeTEOR Education, queried more than 7,000 educators.

Twenty-nine percent of surveyed educators indicated their schools are just beginning to integrate project-based, real-world learning approaches.

Seventy-five percent of surveyed teachers reported a dedicated effort to move towards a more relationship-based, student-centered approach. Actual progress lags behind, however. Fewer than 40 percent of educators reported substantial efforts toward more flexible, project- and collaborative-based learning approaches that engage and empower students.

The K-12 Mindshift cohort has just released a new book that takes aim at some of these specific challenges. Co-authors Rex Miller, Bill Latham, and Brian Cahill worked with a team of more than 60 career educators, a wide variety of specialists, NFP organizations, and business community leaders that led to Humanizing the Education Machine: How to Create Schools That Turn Disengaged Kids Into Inspired Learners.

According to Latham, “if the schools profiled in Humanizing the Education Machine taught us anything, we know that visionary leadership is both possible and effective. The principal’s leadership is critical for unlocking the creative expertise of the classroom teacher.”

(Next page: The need for modern classrooms in a demanding economy)


These 8 schools have A+ mobile device programs—here’s why

Apple devices, like the iPad, paired with management (MDM) solutions, can unlock what's possible in the classroom.

Technology continues to raise the bar of what is possible in education. As more schools discover the power and benefits of education technology, mobile devices such as Chromebooks, Macs and iPads in the classroom are becoming commonplace.

Here are eight innovative, real-world examples of schools that are using mobile devices along with a mobile device management (MDM) solution to unlock what’s possible in the classroom:

1. School District of La Crosse: Providing Student Equity for All & Managing a Massive Student iPad Handout

Dedicated to providing “student equity,” La Crosse staff members across every department volunteered to donate 10 percent of their budget for the year so all students and faculty could receive an Apple device to help drive personalized learning. The district’s iPad program has helped close the tech gap between kids who had access to technology at home and kids who did not. The result has been delivery of consistent educational experiences, giving kids equal access in the classroom and at home.

2. Ridley School District: 1-to-1 iPad Program

Ridley School District has implemented a 1:1 iPad program to help students learn and better prepare for college. As part of the program, the iPad is leveraged to help track how students are progressing with reading and other skills. With the help of a personalized learning solution, eSPark, Ridley sends students on reading and learning ‘quests’. This involves pushing appropriate educational apps directly to student devices and automatically deploying a new set of curated learning apps upon completion of a quest. Students are able to learn at their own pace, as well as progress with the tools they need.

3. Montclair Kimberley Academy: Teaching with AirPlay via Apple TVs

Montclair Kimberley Academy provides an innovative education that combines excellence in teaching, creativity in curriculum, and a highly personal, technology-enriched environment.

The academy has been recognized for its unique implementation of technology in its 1:1 laptop learning initiative for grades 4–12, and its use of iPad for grades Pre-K–3. Classrooms are equipped with Apple TVs, allowing students to project and share their creative work from an iPad to the rest of the class on a larger screen. The result is students being able to more easily learn from each other.

4. Hopkins Public Schools: Using a Flipped Classroom Teaching Model

Students take learning into their own hands with access to a digital learning environment at Hopkins Public Schools. iPads are also a critical component to the success of the district’s “flipped” classrooms in high school.

In the flipped classroom model, students watch lectures at home, take a short quiz on it, and then complete homework at school. Teachers access quiz results to know before their next class how well each student understands the concepts they’re teaching. From there, teachers can customize their class, based on how well the students understand the lesson, ensuring they are able to address areas needed.

(Next page: 4 more schools with A+ mobile devices and programs)


March’s 11 buzzworthy edtech tools

The month of March’s hottest, must-know edtech tools—right now.

[Ed. note: Common Sense Education’s Edtech Eleven is chosen by Common Sense Education every month and helps educators find the best edtech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly.]

Things move fast in the edtech world, and we hear all the time from teachers how hard it can be to keep up. This is why we’ve created the EdTech Eleven: our monthly list of noteworthy tools generating buzz in the edtech world. While these aren’t recommendations or ratings (you have to check out our Top Picks for that), what you’ll find on the EdTech Eleven is a quick and current list of trending tools you might want to check out.

March 2017 Updates

What left the list? GoNoodle,  Space by Tinybop, TinyTap

What’s new? Adobe Spark, Recap, Smithsonian Earth

Adobe Spark  

Apps that help people create beautiful, web-first designs are on the rise. From Canva to Sway and now Adobe Spark, consumers and educators have lots of options. Spark, however, stands out due to sheer versatility. It combines the functionality of former Adobe apps Slate, Post, and Voice, offering students and teachers lots of options to make visual presentations and stories.


Bitmoji — an app that lets users create their own personalized emoji — is the second most popular free app on the Apple store, and was bought by Snap in 2016. There’s no doubt it’s trending, but why did it make an edtech list? Because like Bitstrips before it, Bitmoji has caught fire with educators who we’ve seen use their Bitmojis to engage students as well as their PLNs.


In edtech right now, there’s nothing more novel — or generating more buzz — than BreakoutEDU. It brings the popular puzzle-room phenomenon to classrooms through purchasable physical kits or a DIY guide to building your own. What has really set them apart thus far, though, is their vibrant community of educators sharing stories and collaborating on new scenarios.

checkology Virtual Classroom

Created by the News Literacy Project — a nonpartisan nonprofit focused on building students’ digital literacy — checkology virtual classroom offers students a blended learning experience that helps them practice skills of separating fact from fiction using real-world stories and examples. We’ve heard some buzz around this tool recently and for good reason: it seems perfectly positioned to help teachers tackle the challenging media circumstances students now face.

Explain Everything

Explain Everything Classic has long been one of the most popular tools in the crowded interactive whiteboard and lesson genre. While we rated Explain Everything Classic highly, we noted the detailed but complex design vis a vis competitors like Educreations. With this brand new revision, titled simply Explain Everything, the app has undergone a total visual overhaul that seems to offer a more elegant, intuitive experience, and adds new features like collaboration on projects.

(Next page: Edtech tools for March 6-11)


New Trump laws will support women in STEM fields

President Trump indicated the dearth of women in STEM fields is 'unfair'

President Donald Trump has signed two bills aimed at increasing the number of women who pursue entrepreneurial endeavors and space-related STEM careers.

“Currently, only 1 in every 4 women who gets a STEM degree is working in a STEM job, which is not fair and it’s not even smart for the people that aren’t taking advantage of it,” Trump said in remarks during the signing. “It’s unacceptable that we have so many American women who have these degrees but yet are not being employed in these fields. So I think that’s going to change. That’s going to change very rapidly.”

The Promoting Women in Entrepreneurship Act authorizes the National Science Foundation “to encourage its entrepreneurial programs to recruit and support women to extend their focus beyond the laboratory and into the commercial world.”

The Inspiring the Next Space Pioneers, Innovators, Researchers, and Explorers (INSPIRE) Women Act “directs the National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) to encourage women and girls to study science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), pursue careers in aerospace, and further advance the nation’s space science and exploration efforts through support of the following initiatives: NASA GIRLS and NASA BOYS; Aspire to Inspire; and Summer Institute in Science, Technology, Engineering, and Research.”

Next page: The alarming trend of few women in STEM fields


App of the Week: A global project platform

Sleek project-based learning platform encourages global connections.

Ed. note: App of the Week picks are now being curated by the editors of Common Sense Education, which helps educators find the best ed-tech tools, learn best practices for teaching with tech, and equip students with the skills they need to use technology safely and responsibly. Click here to read the full app review.

What’s It Like? 

Dreamdo is a project-based learning (PBL) platform that’s available on the web as well as iOS, Android, and Windows Phone. It’s designed to allow teachers and students to create and contribute to projects, sharing learning and experiences with their classmates, and, potentially, the world. It’s free and easy to use, and teachers can get started by completing a quick registration process. Once an account is set up, teachers can review the project gallery, create their own projects, and invite students to join using an automatically generated code.

Price: Free

Grades: K-12

Rating: 4/5

Pros: Easy to use with extensive support materials and access to global education network.

Cons: Quality of projects is uneven; teachers need to be mindful of sharing pictures of students.

Bottom line: An excellent tool for project-based learning; plan, create, and share learning around the world.


Warning: These fraud attacks are wreaking havoc on education

Colleges, school districts become latest victims in W-2 fraud attacks—here’s how to stay safe.

On March 14, it was reported in CSO (a leading cybersecurity outlet) that 110 organizations experiences successful phishing attacks targeting their W-2 records. This put more than 120,000 taxpayers at risk for identity fraud.  Despite warnings from the IRS in early February, employees continue to fall victim to the bad guys’ ploys.

This wildly successful phishing scheme works like this: malicious actors spoof (or pretend to be) the CEO or President of a company and email a CFO or similarly positioned employee to request copies of all employees’ W-2 forms. The employee falls victim to the fake email, shares confidential information and the damage is immediately done.

W-2 Fraud attacks are particularly dangerous because of the ongoing fall out. In fact, IRS Commissioner, John Koskinen wrote in a statement, “This is one of the most dangerous email phishing scams we’ve seen in a long time. It can result in the large-scale theft of sensitive data that criminals can use to commit various crimes, including filing fraudulent tax returns.”

Fraud in Education

So why should education care? While once a problem isolated only in the corporate world, cybercriminals have extended their target base to target a wider range of organizations than ever before. Among the 110 victim organizations, many were schools: Northwestern College, The College of Southern Idaho, Daytona State, Groton School District in Connecticut, Redmond School District in Oregon, Yukon Public Schools in Oklahoma. This is only a sampling, but underscores that no entity is off-limits and that educational institutions need to take precautions to protect themselves.

Regardless of size, geographical region, level of education (secondary and higher ed), we’re seeing school employees across the board fall victim.

(Next page: How institutions and schools can protect against W-2 fraud)