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STEM 5 years

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?)

Looking to the Future for STEM Education

What does this look like in practice for early STEM education?

Over the coming year, we will be working with public and private groups to find more effective ways of developing innovative edtech products and transitioning them into the classroom by employing the DARPA ethos. This goal means identifying grand challenges for education aimed at lifelong personalized learning and designing major programs to tackle them, not piecemeal, but whole cloth. It means pulling in expertise from the most talented educators, researchers, and technology developers from across the nation and around the world. These grand challenges will be identified by consulting top education experts and may take a variety of different forms.

For instance, I created a DARPA program that developed learning games that evolved pedagogically over time across large populations of players to look for optimum teaching strategies. The program team was comprised of world-class game developers, innovators in program assessment, education experts and top media experts.

For future projects, one can imagine highly personalized technologies that act as lifelong tutors and assistants from cradle to cane, or highly personalized intelligent tutors that can detect and adapt to student comprehension and engagement, and allow educators to intervene in real-time.

Each project would pull from a different mix of talent and require different research program structures depending on the requirements and the number of basic research questions that need to be answered to inform product design.

Pushing STEM Ed Forward with 9 Questions

At the foundation of all DARPA projects lies a very simple set of nine questions, known as the Heilmeier Catechism, named after George Heilmeier who directed DARPA from 1975-1977.  This deceptively simple catechism is essential for identifying grand challenges and guides the development process:

1. What are you trying to do?  Articulate your objectives using absolutely no jargon.

2. How is it done today, and what are the limits of current science?

3. What is new in your approach and why do you think it will be successful?

4. Who cares?

5. If you succeed, what difference will it make?

6. What are the risks and payoffs?

7. How much will it cost?

8. How long will it take?

9. What are the mid-term and final “exams” to check for program success?

The possibilities are limitless. At the center of these innovations should be evaluations of the long-term impact on learning, transitioning technologies to the learning environment, and an evaluation of privacy issues.

These grand challenges may be funded by a single organization or by a consortium of funding groups working with a non-profit program office modeled after DARPA. This program office could also serve as a non-profit venture capital firm to support innovative start-ups and help transition products into practice.

Ultimately, we need to develop an incubator for education innovation that attracts the best talent and ideas and provides a pathway to bring these ideas into reality and into learning environments. The challenges of providing quality education technologies to children in both our cities and rural communities are immense, but if we wish to improve STEM competency and engagement, we must start with our earliest students and support them throughout their entire education.

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