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Exploring tech-based solutions to elevate education

Young student has hands-on electrostatics experience with generator

Middle school students visiting an engineering research lab at Arizona State University got a hands-on experience with electrostatics with the use of a Van De Graaff generator. Photo courtesy of Tirupalavanam Ganesh/ASU

May 27, 2016

There’s little argument that high-tech tools are more critical than ever to meaningful education.

In a world of ever-advancing electronic information and communication technologies, awareness of these devices and the vast knowledge they can make accessible now seems all but indispensible to most career and life pursuits.

Beyond that fact, a multitude of questions abound about how to most effectively employ advanced technologies in all levels of schooling.

How can technologies help students to develop and enhance skills and boost learning in everything from math and engineering to the arts and humanities?

How can they be used to motivate, inspire and spark creativity?

And perhaps the most difficult challenge: How best to aid those communities whose lack of resources limits their access to new technologies?

Researchers such as Tirupalavanam Ganesh at Arizona State University are searching for answers to these questions.

Ganesh is an associate research professor in the School for Engineering of Matter, Transport and Energy in ASU’s Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, and an assistant dean of engineering education. He also guides students, university staff and industry partners, as well as middle school and high schools teachers, on planning and implementing K-12 and undergraduate education endeavors.

After receiving undergraduate and graduate degrees in computer science and engineering, Ganesh earned a doctoral degree in education research and has been engaged in the field for more than 12 years.

Some of his latest findings and those of his colleagues are detailed in the book he edited along with four other education researchers. The book’s 12 chapters are written or co-written by more than 20 researchers, including Ganesh and some of his fellow editors.

The authors include instructional designer and learning theorist Brian Nelson and cognitive scientist and education technology researcher Robert Atkinson, both associate professors on the faculties of the Fulton Schools of Engineering and ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College.

The book, “Research On Technology Use in Multicultural Settings,” is the third in a “Research in Educational Diversity and Excellence” series by Information Age Publishing, publishers of academic and scholarly books and journals on the social sciences.

A central message conveyed by the authors is that optimizing the use of education technologies — and extending their benefits to all — involves tailoring solutions to socio-economic factors, particularly varying demographic and cultural diversities, and to public-policy priorities.

Many of the chapters delve into different ways in which this might be accomplished.

The authors offer “approaches designed to help specific groups use technology to both teach and learn more effectively in various kinds of environments, and we cite what research is showing has worked,” Ganesh said.

In the book, Ganesh writes about his use of a robotics-based biomimicry project to engage middle school students in engineering design practices.

Students design and build robots that mimic the behaviors of desert tortoises. Through their collaborative efforts, they learned how engineers use creativity, systems thinking, teamwork, communication, optimism and ethical considerations in developing technologies.

The students were mentored by university engineering students and engineering professionals. They were taken on tours of the ASU Art Museum and research laboratories to spark their curiosity — as well as increase their awareness about what they could study in college and what kinds of careers higher education could enable them to pursue.

“All of these approaches are aimed at helping middle school students from diverse socio-economic settings explore engineering in a personalized way that emphasizes its social relevance,” Ganesh said

Co-editor and co-author Hersh Waxman says the book successfully “draws together diverse perspectives on the importance of approaches for implementing and evaluating technology use in schools, and is being acclaimed by both academics and school-based educators who are saying that it is influencing their thinking.”

Waxman is the director of the Education Research Center at Texas A&M University, where he is also co-director of the Center for Mathematics and Science Education, and a professor in the Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture.

To explore ways that disadvantaged communities can overcome a shortage of resources, researchers “have looked at some of the things that have been done in places that have dealt with this problem,” Ganesh says.

Many schools have been able to partner with local higher-education institutions and industry to establish outreach and education projects, enabling K-12 schools to have access to the technology available at universities and tech businesses.

Ganesh, Waxman and their colleagues write that closing the “digital divide” between the technology haves and have-nots is an essential part of achieving equal-opportunity education.

“There are still substantial disparities in both Internet use and the quality of access to technology across income levels and geographic regions in the United States,” Waxman said, “Closing these gaps is imperative to providing equal educational opportunities for everyone.”

That objective is in turn critical to progress toward the larger goal of expanding equality and opportunity throughout society, the researchers contend.

“Why do we educate people? That is a fundamental question we are asking,” Ganesh said.

One answer, in short: Because an informed and educated citizenry increases the potential for more people to be innovators and contributors to society — to be producers and creators as much as they are consumers.

The researchers are not advocating that all students simply learn more about the workings of technology itself. They instead want to see it enable students to become self-learners who use technologies as a gateway to exploring whatever attracts their interest or evokes their passion.

Waxman says this “learner-centered” education model calls for teachers to act as facilitators to create opportunities for students and guide them in collaborating to pursue knowledge and learn skills.

“In such an environment, they are more likely to get deeper experiences that teach them problem solving, critical thinking and teamwork,” he said.

Ganesh, for instance, has adapted his robotics-based biomimicry project to encourage undergraduate students to learn from nature.

“Engineers have innovated by first studying nature’s solutions to the kinds of technological design challenges that humans face,” he explained.

He encourages students to examine such things as how the Sonoran desert tortoise adapts itself to the harsh desert environment, and what can be learned from tortoise behaviors that humans might use to lessen the impacts of urban heat islands in their environments.

“People won’t be inspired only by what things like computers, the internet and robotics can do from a technical standpoint. They need to see what these things can provide to them that are relevant to their own lives and their own hopes for the future,” Ganesh said.

Which comes back to the core issue of the book: Overcoming the social, organizational, pedagogical — and often political — challenges of instilling this vision across diverse economic, cultural and demographic environments.

“It comes down to questions of how do we get people to care,” Ganesh said, “and to understand that breaking down the barriers to educating all people is ultimately good for everyone.”

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