This article was originally published in The Notebook. In August 2020, The Notebook became Chalkbeat Philadelphia.
The search and rescue was on.
A six-inch drone that resembled nothing if not an insect sat next to a miniature LEGO town. As Michael Williams operated its controller, the drone turned red and its propellers started to whir.
It quickly shot up and hovered in the air for a second. Then, slowly, it flew across the table, dragging a rope with a magnet behind it. It passed over the multicolored boxy houses and people before zooming in on one of the figures at the end of the scene. The magnet on the drone’s rope latched onto the magnet of the little LEGO person and dragged it away from the table – away from whatever danger the toy town faced.
Williams, a student at Franklin Learning Center, was one of four classmates from the high school presenting at the International Society for Technology in Education (ISTE) Conference and Expo, which met in Philadelphia this week.
Williams’ computer science teacher, James Arlet, wanted to make his class more creative, so he decided to get some drones. Wesley Hsu from Robolink, an educational robotics company, heard about Arlet’s program and reached out to him. The two of them developed a search and rescue program that would help the students learn computer coding so they could control the drones. Then they could showcase their knowledge at the ISTE conference.
Throughout the last quarter of the school year, students learned to use Google Maps to analyze the terrain, discovered which materials would be necessary to add to the drone without weighing it down too much, and ran a simulation in which LEGO people would be “rescued” from an impending wildfire and brought to safety.
Franklin Learning Center was just one of the organizations presenting at this year’s conference, which brought 14,000 people from across the country to Philadelphia between June 23 and 26. Other featured speakers from Pennsylvania included Sharif El-Mekki, the director of the Center for Black Educator Development; Pedro Rivera, Pennsylvania’s secretary of education; and Amal Giknis, a teacher at Science Leadership Academy.
Each year, for more than 30 years, the ISTE Conference and Expo has taken place in a new U.S. city. Its website says that “educators and education leaders have gathered at the ISTE conference to engage in hands-on learning, exchange ideas and network with like-minded thinkers to transform learning and teaching.”
The conference draws teachers, students, school superintendents, professors, and representatives from industry to explore and showcase the ways technology can – and cannot – be used inside the classroom. They engage in workshops and lectures, hear researchers present their work, and learn in a wide variety of other ways.
This year, panels were offered on subjects ranging from incorporating augmented reality into the classroom, to using modern technology to explore cultural identity, to utilizing technological tools to streamline an administrator’s day. On Sunday, Darren Hudgins, CEO of Think Do Thrive LLC, spoke about how to approach media literacy and critical thinking when it comes to processing information found online. On Monday, a lecture discussed an apprenticeship and pre-apprentice program that the School District of Philadelphia and a Philadelphia nonprofit worked on to promote coding and programming skills. And on Tuesday, a Google for Education presentation addressed how to create an environment of student-led learning.
Also on Tuesday, a presentation looked at how all 50 states define STEM and how hands-on STEM courses have an impact on students’ career goals.
Graduate student Wei Tang from the University of Pittsburgh spoke about the relationship between so-called “making courses,” which involve using hands-on skills and practical knowledge to create a product, and students’ interest in STEM careers. She discovered that after controlling for factors such as socioeconomic status, gender, and GPA, taking a “making course,” in which the culminating activity might be creating a model or a graphic design rather than writing a paper, actually does make the student more likely to be interested in a career related to science, technology, and engineering.
The same does not hold true for math, however. He found that participating in such a course did not have a statistically significant effect on the interest of the student in pursuing that career.
Courtney Carmichael, supervisor of curriculum and instruction in the Closter school district in North Jersey, presented her findings: The ways that different states define and approach STEM vary greatly. Some view STEM classes as those in which each discipline is distinct, and others view the classes as distinct disciplines but look for an underlying theme for all the classes. Some states explicitly state how they relate STEM education as valuable to workforce development or economic development, some emphasize improving minority participation, and some use Career and Technical Education as the primary source for STEM education. According to Carmichael’s data, Pennsylvania uses an integrated or multidisciplinary definition for STEM, relates STEM education to economic development, and uses CTE as a primary source for STEM.
Arlet, the FLC teacher, said that it is important, above all, to make the use of technology authentic and take care that it actually enhances learning.
“It should not be gimmicky,” he said. “You should never throw a drone or a tool into the classroom unless it has a real-world application. Students need to be able to see how it applies to the real world.”