STEM 5 years

Why STEM education could get a transformative makeover—soon

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

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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