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STEM in secondary education - answering the why and the how

Integrating coding hardware and AI technology into schools offers opportunity for a wealth of real-world learning, says DFRobot's Ricky Ye

Posted by Julian Owen | July 03, 2019 | Technology

In today’s increasingly tech-centric world, the role of STEM subjects – science, technology, engineering, and maths – is becoming a central tenet of any educational offering. However, given the rapid pace at which technology is adapting and expanding, there is now an expectation for students to leave school with a deep understanding of not only coding, but its supporting functions and practical applications.

When ensuring students are well-equipped for the future demands of post-16 education, it is imperative that hardware is integrated into STEM lesson plans to offer students a broad and practical knowledge base. Learning by doing is, after all, an age-old pedagogical approach that takes theoretical knowledge to the next level, in this case bringing their coding to life. The fact that students are learning in the age of the internet of things further underlines the importance of encouraging the dual application of coding skills and hardware.

 The lay of the land

After considerable campaigning, coding has become firmly integrated into many schools’ curricula, with teachers and senior leadership teams recognising its increasing influence over society. Technology – both coding hardware and artificial intelligence (AI) – is almost impossible to escape. Most people own a smartphone, supermarkets and retail stores are increasingly reliant on self-checkouts, manufacturing is becoming more streamlined by the day, and simple commands such as turning on lights have been outsourced to applications like Google Home. It’s hard to find a sector that hasn’t been influenced by - or isn’t becoming more reliant on - technological advances. With this in mind, there is a responsibility to equip students with a comprehensive knowledge base and skillset that will help them thrive in the future – all of which will go a long way to closing the ongoing STEM skills gap.

This is not to say that progress isn’t already being made; the provision of STEM education has come a long way, particularly in primary schools. This has been great for STEM fields, as early exposure builds greater familiarity with key concepts, and at a time when minds are most malleable. However, these opportunities need to be continued through to secondary education and beyond. There seems to be something of a lag in STEM in secondary education, in part due to a lack of engaging and affordable resources that support the continuation of this learning; as educators, we must find innovate ways to continue and capitalise on the early years’ levels of engagement, instilling in students the ability to demonstrate nuanced understanding through practical applications as they enter the world of work.

Coding and AI, and their numerous applications, have taken over this technology-driven world

Harnessing hardware

Taking the foundational knowledge students gain in primary school, secondary students should be equipped to tackle larger, more challenging tasks – but how is this best achieved? Thankfully, creativity is limitless, and teachers and students have countless opportunities to enhance their knowledge by harnessing hardware in such extra-curricular activities as coding clubs, workshops and challenges, as well as integrating coding into other subjects.

Taking coding clubs as the first example, secondary students can use these opportunities to build upon their foundational knowledge of programming skills in ways that aren’t bound by curriculum constraints. These opportunities also allow students the freedom to choose projects that interest and challenge them, which naturally leads to greater engagement and creativity with the subject. Additionally, coding workshops are a great way of continuing STEM education for secondary students. Through these workshops, teachers can invite a professional, from any number of fields, to visit the classroom and talk to students about how they interact with technology on a daily basis in a professional setting. This opportunity, which can also fall under career guidance, is a great way to not only demonstrate the purpose of what they are learning and how it is applied in the real world, but also instil an understanding of the scope of tech amongst students, allowing them to ask questions of someone who has walked in their shoes and carved out a successful career.

Ricky Ye

One of the benefits of secondary education is that, as students progress, they are able to choose the subjects they want to study at A-Level. Ideally, this means that students should, to some extent, have a natural inclination towards the subject matter - integrating STEM and hardware to form cross-curricular activities is a great way to provide a stimulating learning environment for practical applications. Students can, for example, build light reflectors in physics, measure the pH level of soil in biology or chemistry, tap into history and communicate via Morse code, or even introduce an element of automation or robotics to art projects. Leveraging this pre-existing interest in these subjects, and integrating hardware and STEM frameworks, not only provides more equal opportunities to develop relevant tech skills, but also demonstrates the interwoven and complex nature of STEM in a wide range of sectors.

AI in education

AI is already being used within education technology resources, particularly in the delivery of lessons. Personalised learning is trending in the education sector thanks to its ability to reduce teacher workload and provide differentiation for pupils, targetting their weaknesses and bolstering their strengths. AI can help to better drive efficiencies and encourage greater attainment; however, given students will need to also work in a world with AI, it is important that we equip them with the necessary skills to gain a thorough understanding of how best to use and work alongside the technology.

While the provision of STEM has steadily increased in education, more needs to be done to better prepare our young people for the future

As a subject that falls outside of the core curriculum, it is difficult to find time to teach AI. There is great value in exploring this area, however, as it embraces broader computational thinking, and may prove more widely appealing than areas covered by traditional coding. Another challenge for AI is that it is a difficult subject to teach, thanks to a lack of resourcing and slow up-skilling for teachers who often need to undertake additional training. Ultimately, though, it is well-worth the investment, with machine-learning technology taking over.

Starting with the basics, teachers can ask students to develop their own chatbots – tech that they will may already be familiar with from their own experiences on the internet. As with the coding hardware activities, this can also be integrated into other subjects, as they can be programmed to ask and answer questions on any given topic. For more advanced students, machine learning is a great area for exploration, with students able to train a programme to recognise objects and take subsequent actions based on pre-determined commands. Integrating this key learning into other subjects, machine learning can also be adapted for classes such as art, with students experimenting with AI-driven cameras for photography projects or facial recognition portraits.

Coding and AI, and their numerous applications, have taken over this technology-driven world. While the provision of STEM has steadily increased in education, more needs to be done to better prepare our young people for the future. Integrating coding hardware and AI technology provides the opportunity to ensure that each pupil is not only able to identify and demonstrate the underlying principals, but can also carry these skills with them into the workforce through a wide range of practical applications.

Ricky Ye is the CEO of robotics and open source hardware provider, DFRobot

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