Collectively Flourishing

Makerspaces make sense for educating the workforce of tomorrow.

GUEST COLUMN | by Randy Swearer 

credit-autodeskAccording to the most recent U.S. Department of Labor report, 65 percent of careers that students will be taking on in the future don’t exist today. Jobs in STEM in the U.S. are projected to grow three times faster than non-STEM jobs over the next decade (U.S. Department of Commerce). With the emergence of sophisticated technology, computers and even artificial intelligence, the demands of today’s workforce are evolving. In order to keep up, tomorrow’s employees need to adopt new processes and develop different skillsets through a new kind of progressive learning.

Increasingly, we are seeing makerspaces cropping up across the country at higher education institutions.

Makerspaces are a core ingredient in the recipe for progressive learning and furthering the maker movement. Not familiar with makerspaces? Imagine this: a dedicated environment where students from a myriad of disciplines can come together and collectively learn, make, and grow. A business student can learn from someone studying chemistry, or a design student can collaborate on a project with someone focused on medicine. It’s a place where students can focus on collaborative making amongst their peers.

The maker movement is not just about creative people developing interesting designs or crafting DIY projects. Although those things are important, the kind of maker movement that will have a lasting impact on our future fosters learning environments where people can collectively flourish and prepare for the jobs of tomorrow. Increasingly, we are seeing makerspaces cropping up across the country at higher education institutions, and it’s in these spaces that students can connect and learn from each other. This is the classroom of the future.

Through my company’s close dialogue with universities across the nation, we’ve seen first-hand that educators are concerned that they’re not staying relevant to students due to a lack of collaboration across majors. Most curriculums at universities were developed for jobs during the industrial revolution and those curriculums aren’t cutting it when it comes to preparing graduates for the jobs of tomorrow. In order to address this lack of relevancy, many educators are turning to makerspaces.

It is important to note that developing these spaces is only half the battle. A truly effective makerspace requires specialized faculty to adequately instruct students on how to make the most of these new resources. In addition, access to these spaces should not be limited to students pursuing degrees in engineering and design which would thus cripple the collaborative spirit the space is meant to embody.

As with anything, improving our complex education system is never a quick fix, and any step towards a making-based learning model is a step forward. With that in mind, below are few recommendations on how educators can encourage students to embrace the maker movement and begin to learn through making:

  • Makerspaces should never be owned by single departments or disciplines; they are places where academic specializations coalesce around the making process
  • Curriculum should work dynamically with what’s available in the makerspace; whenever possible there should be a real-world purpose to the making
  • The flow from construction from studio to fabrication lab is critical for the way students envision and create things; an open floor plan encourages collaboration and an open dialogue about the design process
  • Eliminate barriers to creation by avoiding as many prerequisites as possible for students to gain access to the makerspace

The collaborative environment makerspaces create helps students develop a sense of empowerment and resourcefulness. Thus, they acquire the desire and ability to create change through making. By implementing an educational system that prioritizes teaching the skills learned through making and project-based learning, we’re setting ourselves up for a prepared workforce ready to tackle tomorrow’s challenges—and citizens who can work together to address the world’s most complex challenges.

Randy Swearer, Ph.D., is Vice President, Autodesk Education Experiences. Randy, a Wesleyan University grad, has an MFA from Yale and a Ph.D. in Anthropology and Urban Studies from Union Institute & University. He is deeply involved in exploring the future of education, including learning co-creatively with intelligent computer systems, micro-credentialing, cross-disciplinary learning, and in teaching design-driven innovation to the next generation of students. Follow @randyswearer.

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Why Simulation is Vital

For teachers and mentors, examining a must-have step in engineering design workflow.

GUEST COLUMN | by Sandeep Hiremath

credit-mathworks-simulinkSTEM-based robotics competitions are beneficial to students in a number of ways, but perhaps the greatest benefit is the exposure to project-based learning in a fun, collaborative, technology-rich environment. While these competitions may not feel like work, the hardware and software design tools students use are actually very often the same tools they’ll employ later in life should they opt for a career in science or engineering. The challenges they encounter throughout the competition process can also mirror the “real world” of engineering, where busy people on tight deadlines are expected to complete their work on-time and on-budget.

Simulation can represent the real environment with something as simple as a sketch of a mechanical design, or as complex as a mathematical model.

One step students (and engineers) often overlook comes relatively early in the project design process. The initial excitement of designing a robot often leads teams to rush to what they believe to be the next step – building it. What they quickly come to realize, however, is that the design often doesn’t capture variables that can lead to operational failure. In a worst case scenario, students find themselves developing multiple iterations of their robot design, spending time and resources they didn’t originally plan for.

Failures are inevitable, however, it is essential to find and fix them to build a more robust robot or system. By incorporating appropriate simulation methods in the project design workflow, teams are better able to spot potential problems in their design and address them at an early stage. Is it an extra step in the design process? Sure, but it’s a step that helps in saving time and money that can be invested in other parts of the project.

Simulation 101

But what is simulation? Simulation is a technique in the design process where a mathematical or visual representation of the real world environment can be easily altered and used so that designers can understand the behavior of a system or robot. More simply put, according to Dr. Richard Gran from Mathematical Analysis Company, simulation answers questions. Simulation can represent the real environment with something as simple as a sketch of a mechanical design, or as complex as a mathematical model.

Organizations like NASA use simulation for space exploration projects like sending a probe to Pluto. When building robots or autonomous systems used to explore the unknown in space, NASA scientists don’t know the scope or makeup of the physical space the system will be navigating. To help in the design and creation of the robot or spacecraft, NASA models how the physical world works, then manipulates it and tests how the robot or system works within the modeled world, in order to simulate what will happen in space. Economists to biologists even use simulation techniques to conduct professional research, with simulation enabling them to make abstract conclusions more concrete.

Simulation tools, such as Simulink from MathWorks, provide a simple block diagram environment that enables model-based designing of systems and simulation features to test these designs. Engineers and scientists across various industries have adopted simulation techniques to help them accelerate the move from concept to creation by troubleshooting their products before committing them to the manufacturing line.

Choosing the Right Fit

Modeling and simulation is incredibly important in engineering because, so often, the description of a system behavior by experimentation might not be feasible due to a number of reasons. These reasons include inaccessible real world conditions; the experiment may be too dangerous or expensive or even too fast or too slow for humans to perceive and test accurately; and the experimental behavior could be obscured by disturbances.

Given the importance of this activity, it’s worth noting there are a number of types of simulation that engineers use that student competition teams will likely find useful. These types of simulation include the following.

  • Visual models: In visual models, graphical sketches and computer solid models are used to simulate form and appearance.
  • Physical models: By leveraging prototypes, mock-ups and structural models, teams can physically simulate the function of a robot or device. A physical model can be as basic as a mock-up of a device with cardboard, PVC pipes and rubber bands.
  • Mathematical/Computational models: There are certain design choices that cannot be validated using only basic visualization or a physical prototype; they need complete representation of the physical world through mathematical models to be able to design the robot or device that provides the desired behavior. Software simulation using algebraic and/or differential equations for computer simulations helps in easily defining these complex mathematical models and then running iterative tests for different design alternatives to validate the design choices.

While mathematical modeling and simulation techniques can help teams obtain results as close as possible to the real world, these simulation techniques are not mutually exclusive. In one application, users could have simulations where the laws of physics are defined using math, but a visual simulator can be used to represent the different objects in the environment and their position and orientation at each instant of time during the simulation. Further, students may find that making software design changes rather than mechanical or physical design changes is simpler and less costly. The point is that there are a number of simulation options that student competition teams can take advantage of to help effectively bring their design to life.

Reaping the Benefits

Simulation not only helps engineers and scientists save time and money, it can also help to improve the quality of the end product. In the engineering world, we often say, “fail fast, fail often, and fail cheap.” Simulation in the context of student competition teams helps ensure that teams will fail at an early enough stage to identify potential design flaws and fix issues along the way. For example, this video from Manthano Christian Academy shows how the school’s robotics team simulated its entry for BEST Robotics 2015 to help the team make informed decisions about their robot during the design phase. Simulation can also save teams money since fixing a minor issue early on is typically much less complex than fixing a major issue closer to competition day. Ultimately, it can ensure teams have a sounder design and operational robot going into the competition.

As teachers and students prepare for their next robotics competition, they should consider incorporating simulation into their project as a de-bugging tool. By engaging in activities like simulation that real engineers, scientists, astronauts and economists use every day, not only will it give teams a potential leg-up against competitors, it will introduce students to tools they’ll pick up again later in their professional careers.

Sandeep Hiremath is Education Technology Evangelist at MathWorks.

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Textbook Example of Unbundling

Looking in the right places to see the transformation of a billion-dollar market. 

GUEST COLUMN | by Alec Whitters

credit-hlt-alec-whitters-unbundlingFor the unfamiliar, unbundling in business is the taking apart and selling of component parts that used to only come in one package. Examples include being able to access a specific television channel when it was previously only available by a package cable subscription, or selling a single song that used to come only as part of an album or CD.

Most often, dynamic-shifting technologies such as online video streaming or iTunes precipitate unbundling events because they change the way consumers access and use products.

In education, unbundling has been a goal, or at least an intended consequence of education entrepreneurs, investors and advocates for several years. Much of their interest and investment has been focused on breaking apart the traditional college education model of spending four years on a campus to earn a pre-packaged degree. The hope has been that a tech-enabled explosion of online learning options coupled with credentials or certifications for specific skills would liberate the learning pieces bundled inside a degree.

What we have not seen before is this pattern play out in academia – in teaching and learning.

Largely, those investing in or hoping for an unbundled higher education not only not only want education to be more accessible and less expensive – unbundling in other markets usually does both – they are also eager to see innovation and entrepreneurship disrupt the ivy-covered, calcified ways of the traditional education providers.

So far, though, the evidence that the degree is becoming unbundled is patchy. Many of the necessary technologies for unbundling are in place but the degree remains largely, stubbornly bundled. Some see this as evidence that education is uniquely resistant to consumer pressures or insulated from technology disruptions that have upended other marketplaces.

That’s the wrong lesson because it’s drawn from the wrong place. To the contrary, tech-driven unbundling of education is happening. It’s just not happening where most people are looking.

Textbooks – the big, expensive, indispensable anchors of academia – are being unbundled at a frenetic pace and the billion-dollar textbook marketplace is transforming to meet new consumer demands being driven by new technologies.

Like songs and albums before them, textbooks were set up for unbundling by the move to digital formats. What textbook companies originally fought – the threats of pirated and copied digital versions of their property – they now embrace. And not a moment too soon; in 2013 fully 80 percent of students said they preferred paper versions of textbooks but, by 2015, that was already down to just 40 percent. Today, almost all of the paper versions now include digital copies and digital-only versions of textbooks represent a significant and growing share of revenue.

But embracing digital was just the first step. Digital tech has morphed into mobile tech. Today, more than one in five millennials (21 percent) never even use a PC-style computer or laptop. But they do spend an average of three hours a day on their mobile devices.

Since mobile devices aren’t a good fit for 400 page textbooks, startups (such as ours) have pioneered mobile-specific learning platforms and re-engineered 400-page tomes into bite-size, fast-paced modules tailored not just for mobile devices but for newer, more tactile, and responsive learning styles of mobile users. It’s that shift – the shift to smaller, made-for-mobile learning pieces – that is finally unbundling the textbook for good. The chapter is no longer literally bound by the book, and the concepts are no longer bound by read-and-reply style learning.

Already, 93 percent of graduating nurses use mobile studying tools from my company alone. As do 87 percent of graduating dentists. That’s not a blip – that’s a fundamental change in the way people are receiving information products on par with the transition of movies from DVDs to on-demand services such as Netflix.

To capitalize on this new reality, traditional textbook publishers are beginning to convert their content to mobile-designed and mobile-style formats. Other publishers are partnering with existing mobile learning companies to get their products in the hands of consumers.

We’ve seen this before – technology transformation driving changes in consumer preferences to utterly change a market. Content creator HBO, for example, has bypassed cable providers entirely with HBOGo (their own platform) or through partnerships with existing delivery companies such as Sling.

What we have not seen before is this pattern play out in academia – in teaching and learning. But if you’ll pardon the obvious reference, the ongoing unbundling of textbooks is a textbook example of education unbundling.

It’s too early to tell whether this unbundling experience with textbooks and mobile learning will impact unbundling or disruptions elsewhere in education. But we can absolutely no longer say that education is immune to consumer or technology pressures. With textbooks, one of the very foundational ways people used to learn, the bundle, is already broken.

Alec Withers is CEO and co-founder of Higher Learning Technologies.

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Trends | 2016 Digital Study Trends Survey

PrintAs the class of 2020 starts its freshman year of college, students are increasingly looking to get maximum value out of their higher education experience. According to a new survey by learning science company McGraw-Hill Education, college students view digital learning technology as a key tool for achieving that success. The survey of more than 3,300 U.S. college students in associates, bachelors and graduate programs shows that four out of five (81 percent) college students find digital learning technology to be helpful in improving their grades, and more than two-thirds (69 percent) feel that digital learning technology helps them to focus. However, there is still room for improvement, as 45 percent of students report having encountered problems integrating digital learning technology with their personal devices. The results of the study also explore some of the ways in which technology—and adaptive technology in particular—can improve the student experience. Adaptive learning technology and online quizzes are seen to be the most impactful, with half of students who have used them reporting that they have a “major effect” on their grades. To download and read the 2016 Digital Study Trends Survey, visit

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Cool Tool | Magoosh Online Test Prep

credit-magooshCollege and grad school are expensive, so why should students have to deal with insane prices for test prep too? And don’t those high prep costs further raise the barrier of admission for thousands of students? These are the questions that led to the creation of Magoosh — a company that’s using technology to fix the broken test-prep industry and make prep more accessible to people all over the world. Founded in 2009, Magoosh creates web and mobile study apps to help students prepare for standardized entrance exams like the GRE, GMAT, LSAT, SAT, ACT, MCAT, TOEFL and Praxis. To date, they’ve helped prepare more than two million students in 180 countries. All of Magoosh’s online programs cost $99 or less, depending on how long the student needs to study. Once enrolled, each student gets their own personalized dashboard with access to a full suite of online lesson videos, practice questions, text explanations, and 24/7 email support from expert tutors. Magoosh also offers free, comprehensive advice blogs for each exam and a dozen free study apps for mobile. The results: students love this company, which has an average 4.9/5 star rating on Facebook and has received excellent feedback throughout the years. Try it for yourself and send your thoughts to — they’re always open to receiving suggestions and stories from their users, and that’s why Magoosh is definitely a cool tool. Also, check out this interview with their founder from a while back, and come back to EdTech Digest for an updated conversation in the near future. Meanwhile, visit their site to learn more.  

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