Worth the Investment

Saying yes to STEM programs in early childhood education.

GUEST COLUMN | by Kimberly Mecham

credit-st-thomas-schoolYoung children are naturally curious and often ask questions about the world around them. Many of these seemingly simple questions, such as “why do rocks sink” or “why do birds have feathers,” are actually laying the foundation for science, math, engineering and math (STEM) education. Research shows that encouraging children’s natural curiosity through early STEM education positively impacts all aspects of learning, predicting future success in not only math and science, but also reading. Despite these findings, STEM programs are still not widespread in elementary education.

As science and technology play increasingly important roles in our world, it is critical that we prepare children by introducing the skills they need to be successful at an early age.

Educators know that focusing on STEM pays off, but there are still some roadblocks slowing the adoption of STEM programs in young childhood education. These obstacles typically occur in the areas of curriculum and instruction, educator development and standards.

There’s no denying that integrating STEM into a school’s curriculum is a financial investment. The costs associated with building computer labs and purchasing new software often discourages administrators from offering STEM programs to students at such a young age. Similarly, the expense and time requirements of training teachers in order to build proficiency on the subject matter also can prevent teachers and administrators from buying in. In order to get staff members on board, stakeholders must raise awareness around the pay-off that offering these programs at a young age can generate increased interest in higher education and STEM careers, and interest in hobbies that traditional curriculum might not have inspired in young students.

Education standards present another potential roadblock. Education standards outline the learning requirements students must meet before entering the next grade level, and some parents and teachers may express concern that integrating STEM makes the standards too difficult for young children and that  the children are not ready to learn the material that STEM programs cover. It is important to alleviate these concerns by educating administrators, teachers and parents about the benefits of starting STEM early and showing them that STEM curriculum can be tailored for different age groups. STEM programs for younger children can be as simple as using blocks to help them learn about engineering concepts. Presenting STEM programs step-by-step creates a strong foundation of the skills that will become increasingly important throughout a student’s academic and professional career. Raising awareness about this will help dispel the misconception that young students could become overwhelmed by material they can’t comprehend or a technology tool they can’t operate.

Although the areas mentioned above present roadblocks to STEM success, they are the key to a successful STEM program. Organizations that are able to master these areas and communicate the benefits of introducing STEM in early childhood education to stakeholders, are transforming education and creating unlimited opportunities for students as young as the age of three.

Examples of successful STEM programs currently available in early childhood education include robotics, coding, and virtual reality (VR). VR is traditionally recognized as being beneficial in business, gaming and social media, but it has begun to make its way into education. Starting in second grade, St. Thomas School integrates VR into the curriculum, allowing teachers to create a three-dimensional learning environment for their young students. Ten years ago, students would only be able to see pictures or diagrams of body parts; today, 3-D VR computer programs allow St. Thomas School’s students to perform dissections right before their eyes. This visually stimulating and hands-on learning experience leads to an increased engagement levels and even new interest on the subject at hand. Through investing in VR STEM programs, schools could begin to see pay-off in many ways, including potentially fostering a student’s desire to pursue a career in STEM.

Another use case of STEM in early childhood education is through the introduction of robotics. At St. Thomas School, our teachers use robots as a hands-on way for students to experience and learn engineering at an early age. At the age of four, students are introduced to basic wooden programming blocks and each year they progress to more complex scenarios until they are working with an android-like robot. Through constructing a robot’s parts and programming it to complete real-world tasks, students are challenged to understand and explain their design choices. By mastering these skills, students witness the life cycle of their actions, determining results in a visual and collaborative way. Schools that support robotics programs empower students to feel confident as creators of technology, rather than settle as a passive consumer of technology and information.

It is not just the responsibility of the teachers and administrators to introduce STEM subjects to young children early, it’s also important for parents to introduce these subjects before children start preschool and continue skill building at home once the concepts have been introduced in the classroom.  Because STEM focuses heavily on technology, parents should welcome technology into their child’s daily life and establish a healthy balance at home. St. Thomas School offers an opportunity for parents to interact with the technology used in STEM programs. Hosting these events provides parents with a better understanding of how they can support STEM education outside of school.

As science and technology play increasingly important roles in our world, it is critical that we prepare children by introducing the skills they need to be successful at an early age. Creating new curriculum is never easy, but it has been proven that starting STEM education early is well worth the investment.

Kimberly Mecham is Director of Information and Communication Technology at St. Thomas School.

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The E-rate Program Today

A program that has already helped thousands of schools and how it can help your district.

GUEST COLUMN | by John Harrington

credit-fundsforlearning-annual-e-rate-cap-to-2016The federal E-rate program provides discounts on Internet access and Wi-Fi networks for K-12 schools and public libraries. Students and library patrons increasingly are dependent on high-speed internet access as more learning takes place online. Launched in 1998, the E-rate program was designed to get those connections in place; however, until recently the program had been consistently underfunded, and there was never enough money to meet the needs of schools and libraries. This changed when, in 2014, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) voted to overhaul the program to better suit the needs of its constituents, including an increase in the financial support the program had to offer—an incredible milestone for the nation’s schools and libraries.

The 2017 E-rate funding cycle has begun, and looking ahead there are a few important things to consider.

In 2016, $3.93 billion* of support is available, and schools and libraries requested $3.60 billion in discounts. This is the second year in a row that the annual E-rate funding cap has been sufficient to fund all applications. With all of the budget uncertainties that many schools and libraries currently face, it is important that they can count on the E-rate program to help fund their Internet access and computer network infrastructure.

The 2016 annual E-rate funding cap exceeded requests in Category Two for on-campus networking (voice, video and data) and Category One (telecom and internet service to and between school buildings). View historical data in this graph.

Teachers and librarians count on having fast Internet connections available. On average, the annual student spend for telecommunications and internet access is $48. Not knowing if adequate internet capacity will be obtainable makes it difficult to plan its use effectively. But because the E-rate program is consistently meeting the needs of its constituents, schools and libraries are better able to plan. For the immediate future—at least through 2018—it’s expected that the program will have ample funds to meet the needs of applicants.

Last year, the E-rate program helped connect 53.6 million students to the Internet and provided discounts for Wi-Fi connections and high-speed data lines to 120,000 school buildings and more than 4,000 library systems nationwide. It has served communities in virtually every zip code in the United States. It is easy to get wrapped up in the technical components of the program, but in the end, we need to remember that it exists to positively impact millions of students as they gain the skills and knowledge to prepare them for life.

What Does the E-rate Support?

E-rate funds support the services that deliver high-speed internet access to school and library buildings. It also provides support for on-campus computer networks. In 2016–17, this equates to $4.9 billion in goods and services.

The top three service request categories include data and internet, voice service, and switches and routers. Together, they totaled more than $3.5 billion of the $4.9 billion* given in services (other service categories can be found here).

As part of the program’s reform, support for voice telephone services is being phased out. In 2016, applicants received 40 percent less support for their phone bills; in 2017, they will receive 60 percent less support; and, by 2019, support for telephone service is scheduled to be completely eliminated.

So, What’s Next?

As Internet connections in schools and libraries remain essential, the E-rate program will remain vital for those seeking connectivity around the country. The 2017 E-rate funding cycle has begun, and looking ahead there are a few important things to consider. The Universal Service Administrative Company is seeing a change in leadership as Mel Blackwell has retired and Craig Davis has taken his place. The impact of this choice may not be felt until later, but it will certainly impact the E-rate program for years to come. Secondly, with the 2016 presidential race looming, either candidate will be looking to make their mark on the FCC. Either way, there very well might be changes at the FCC in 2017 that lead to modifications to the E-rate program in 2018 or later.

The E-rate program exists to help schools and libraries get the connections they need. It is available to help students and library patrons get online, and many folks are invested in seeing the success of the program.

Ultimately, internet access is transforming our society. Schools and libraries cannot be excluded. The E-rate program reaffirms this mission, and Funds For Learning is proud to champion such efforts.

* To clarify, $3.93 billion is the amount of discounts that USAC has available for FY2016; $4.9 billion is the total amount of goods and services delivered to schools and libraries in 2016 (E-rate dollars plus individual school/library payments).

John Harrington is the CEO of Funds for Learning.

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Engineering the Future

How to land a job as a CEO while in high school.

GUEST COLUMN | by Sandeep Hiremath

credit-bestIt’s no surprise that a STEM curriculum reaps many educational rewards by exposing students to practical, hands-on learning. For Alaina Pettus, a science teacher at Brooks High School in Killen, Ala., her approach to STEM education opened doors beyond the classroom by introducing students to a robotics competition that taught them how behave as if they were running their own business.

BEST (Boosting Engineering, Science, and Technology) is a national, six-week U.S. robotics competition held each fall that is open to middle school and high school students. Pettus’ experience building an award-winning student team taught her that it wasn’t enough to simply design, simulate, build and operate a working robot. She quickly learned that the most effective way to run a successful project was to structure her team like a company.

Bringing the Real World to the Classroom

Each year, the robotics team is managed by a president who works with team leaders overseeing section teams dedicated to engineering, programming, marketing, graphic and web design, video production, budgeting, and presentation development – in short many of the components required to operate a business in the real world.

When students are equipped with the proper tools, they rise to the challenge and become better problem solvers, communicators, and collaborators.

The competition officially kicks off at the beginning of the school year, but the planning and development process actually begins well before that, typically just as the prior year’s competition wraps up. Students from Team Robocon come together after school and on weekends, and along the way develop a variety of skills prized by employers: planning, time and staff management, the ability to communicate with cross-functional groups, and problem solving.

“Since we started participating in BEST, I have seen a real change in the way my team approaches the competition that carries over into their interactions with classmates,” Ms. Pettus said. “Instead of operating in silos, there is more of a tendency to collaborate and work together to find solutions. It is a much smarter way to approach problem solving.”

And just as any company must do, Team Robocon is always on the lookout for new “employees.” As part of their post-competition evaluation, team leaders survey the talent pool to identify potential skills gaps by understanding which students will be graduating. Existing team members and new students are then invited to complete job applications and are interviewed, after which “hires” are made based on interest and aptitude. In addition to on-the-job training, younger students are mentored to develop the next generation of team leaders. Effectively, it’s the same approach to succession planning adopted by major corporations.

The Business Approach Benefits Students, Teachers

According to Pettus, the business approach to the BEST competition instills freedom, trust, and a level of enthusiasm that is leading more of Brooks High School’s students to pursue careers in science and engineering. And they’re not the only ones to benefit.

“My involvement in BEST robotics has forever changed how I approach instruction in the classroom and at home. Through the competition, I’ve learned when students are equipped with the proper tools, they rise to the challenge and become better problem solvers, communicators, and collaborators,” she said. “My children are still young, but even at home I encourage them to ask questions and test solutions. There is no doubt I will encourage them to pursue STEM through student competitions.”

After four years at the helm, Ms. Pettus said her role has evolved. She is still a mentor and there to assist as needed, but it’s the students who are leading the charge and bearing the brunt of the responsibility. The teams even have a thing or two to teach her.

Dive Head First Into Student Competitions

While STEM courses are not yet a mandated part of school curriculum, there is without a doubt a professional demand for these skills. As parents and educators of children who have a passion for STEM know, it is imperative for them to get involved early on so that they are armed with the tools they will need to succeed in high school, college, and the working world.

Student competitions provide an academic and extracurricular advantage. The challenges acquaint students with project-based learning and the engineering tools that they will use for a lifetime if they ultimately decide to pursue a career in STEM. More importantly, student competitions are a valuable exercise in problem solving – whether you are simulating the arm of a robot or working with your colleagues to design an autonomous vehicle, it is essential to know the engineering process.

Sandeep Hiremath is an Education Technology Evangelist for MathWorks.

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Cool Tool | Recap by Swivl

credit-recap-by-swivlAfter making its beta debut earlier this year, Recap, the free video response and reflection app developed by Swivl, has won over many educators and students. It was created in response to the pressing industry need for new formative assessment tools that do more than just collect answers. Says math teacher Kirk Humphreys, “This is a very easy formative assessment tool. It gives me an instant snapshot of what the kids can explain and it lets me know if they understand the concept verbally.” English and Math are the top two subjects taught by Recap users. Science, History, and Social Studies aren’t far behind. Grade levels range from preschool to higher education. The app is also gaining popularity in professional development. It allows educators to pose questions and gather video responses from a class, a student, or a group of students, who can record their responses on almost any classroom device. Teachers sign in with Google, create classes and assignments and add students, using class pin or Google login. After students submit their responses and self-assessments, the videos can be rolled up into Daily Review Reels or shared with others through non-searchable links. Learn more.

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A Mobile-first Generation

How a unified mobile platform can keep students engaged – and in school.

GUEST COLUMN | by Chris Hopkinson

credit-dublabsHigher educational institutions have a lot of responsibility to not only attract applicants, but also ensure the experience and tools that they provide encourage students to remain enrolled and engaged. As roughly 33 percent of first-year students don’t return their sophomore year, institutions are beginning to recognize that positive experiences for students during freshman year typically set the tone for how the rest of their educational career will be.

Understanding retention challenges, as well as how mobility is increasingly being woven into the fabric of student life, a leading mobile app solution provider to higher education institutions created a platform that enables institutions to easily connect with students on their smartphones. Providing students a robust, authentically mobile experience is an integral part of retention efforts, and hundreds of partnering institutions – including Bridgewater State University (BSU) and California State University, Los Angeles (Cal State) – cite positive user experiences and increased engagement as a result.

Creating a Mobile-First Strategy 

Today’s “mobile-first” student interacts with a mobile device 40-60 times per day, and for many, mobile has become the primary mode of interacting with the world. Therefore, driving student engagement should be the primary objective of any mobile program.

Being mobile today means much more than having a school app or mobile website; it’s about understanding the role of mobile technologies as a tool for aligning student needs with institutional goals.

Institutions that have successfully developed a mobile-first strategy are actively engaged with Student Affairs and Student Government Associations to learn what students want out of their campus mobile app. What they’ve learned is that students want one, easy-to-use, personalized mobile app that delivers all the information and resources they need to succeed in a way that makes them want to use the app and return to it frequently.

BSU is a prime example of how working with students has led to the successful implementation of the school’s mobile app. The BSU app, developed on the platform, boasts a 98 percent return rate and 68 percent of users utilize the app at least once a day to view information such as course details, roster, schedules, grades and announcements.

Personalizing the Mobile Experience

A personalized app is inherently more engaging because it provides everything the student needs upfront, as opposed to having to search through complex, fragmented apps for information. Instead of making the costly mistake of creating an app that simply mirrors an institution’s website, or creating multiple apps that aren’t connected to each other, the platform enables institutions to cost-effectively integrate their entire enterprise system into one centralized platform.

Within the natively integrated, customized mobile app, students can quickly and easily connect with teachers and classmates, buy books, pay parking tickets, access academic information and more. In addition, the app enables push notifications that can be customized to the preferences of each individual student. Personal notifications, such as when grades are posted and when assignments are due, have proven to be useful tools that contribute to student success, and alerts about when tuition is due can increase retention rates by ensuring that busy students never miss a payment.

Driving Engagement

The benefits of creating one robust, personalized app include a higher download rate, fewer challenges for IT managers and better experiences for students. Student life activities and social features, such as listings of on-campus events and bus schedules, can also help keep students engaged by virtually connecting students to the entire school within a single app.

Additional features and functionality—such as providing live feeds of the lines at the on-campus coffee shop and laundry room—make the app a valuable and desirable tool for students that they can incorporate into their everyday routine. Since the launch of the Cal State app on the platform in January 2016, there have been more than 14,800 downloads and more than 500,000 visits to the app, which generate on average seven activities per visit. The successful use of the app has generated more than 240 student reviews and has an aggregated rating of 4.6 stars out of 5 in the app store.

Being mobile today means much more than having a school app or mobile website; it’s about understanding the role of mobile technologies as a tool for aligning student needs with institutional goals. Since 2008, my company has partnered with more than 150 schools around the world to provide a native, highly customized unified mobile solution that increases student engagement to improve performance and retention.

Chris Hopkinson is VP of strategy and business development at DubLabs, LLC. As a founding member with nearly 20 years of experience in emerging technology companies, Chris is an expert in business development as well as student mobile technology usage and engagement strategies. Write to: chris.hopkinson@dublabs.com and follow @dublabs.

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