Powering STEM Classrooms With Social Media

Multimedia platforms are connecting students with science, technology, engineering, and math

15 August 2014

Facebook, Pinterest, Twitter, YouTube, and almost any other social media platform that comes to mind have found their way into STEM classrooms. Not because the students are peeking at their smartphones but because educators are using the platforms to add pizzazz to their lectures.

Whether through scientific experiments on YouTube, do-it-yourself projects demonstrated on Pinterest, or tweets about research papers, forward-looking educators are harnessing the power of social media and other technological innovations to inspire youngsters about STEM topics.

“We need to open the classroom to embrace technology, social media, online learning, the DIY maker movement, and all kinds of new things,” says Dusty Fisher, chair of the IEEE-USA Precollege Education Committee and a long-time STEM advocate. “We’ve known for years that if students are physically engaged instead of being lectured to or shown slides, they will learn more and retain more.”

Fisher and other IEEE members involved with STEM education are using social media in a number of ways.

NO LIMITS TO LEARNING

FeatureClassroomf2Cohn IEEE Fellow John Cohn introduces students to the Van de Graaff generator at a local science center, bringing the excitement of electricity to the classroom. Photo: Tom Way/IBM

IEEE Senior Member Kevin Curran, a professor of computing and engineering at the University of Ulster, in Northern Ireland, has one way to help teachers struggling to make STEM topics both fun and instructional.

Curran uses YouTube videos to supplement a number of his lessons and lab sessions. “They break up the monotony of my lectures,” he says, “and students can become engaged with their speakers.” Students often stay in touch with experts, he says, by following them on Facebook and Twitter.

Supplementing lectures with video also frees up the teaching staff’s time for one-on-one discussions with students, he says.

Curran uses Facebook rather than e-mail to communicate with his students because, he says, he has found they rarely check their in-box. “With Facebook, I can easily contact most of my students in more or less real time,” he says, adding that “Twitter may become a more standard form of broadcasting updates to students” in the near future.

SPARKING EXCITEMENT

IEEE Fellow John Cohn, an IBM Fellow who works in IBM’s corporate technical strategy group, in Essex Junction, Vt., is another STEM education proponent. For more than 20 years, he has visited schools around the United States to demonstrate how exciting STEM can be.

“I find science, technology, engineering, and math fun,” Cohn says, “and I want others to have the same appreciation for them as they might for music or art.”

A self-described nerd, he uses Facebook, YouTube, music videos, and other popular means to share his passion. He has been featured on television, including as a cast member on “The Colony,” a Discovery Channel reality show.

“Anything that allows kids to approach something playfully and with curiosity is really important,” he says. “Technology is the great enabler. Back in the day, that meant going to the library, but now this kind of curiosity can be satisfied by social media and free online content.”

MORNING MOOCS

Cohn says he believes massive open online courses (MOOCs) will add innovation to classroom teaching. “Not only do you get the best educators teaching those classes but you can also get different viewpoints on the same topic,” he says. “By understanding each of their points of view, you discover something new.”

MOOCs are making inroads, according to Curran, especially among people who cannot afford to attend college. MOOCs give structure to learning, he adds.

“MOOC lecturers speak well, and the supporting content is often excellent,” he points out. “Material-wise, it’s hard to find fault with the courses.”

IEEE-USA’S Fisher says a blend of traditional and online teaching—called “flip learning” by some—has many advantages, especially for people in rural areas and from underrepresented groups.

“Speaking as a female who once was a young girl, online courses allow you to express your intelligence and not be intimidated, and be yourself,” she says. “Students can also learn at their own pace.”

Such courses can reach groups unable to attend classes because of financial or other reasons, she notes, adding, “Online learning is here to stay.”

Social media is raising awareness of the importance of STEM and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, art, and math) education, she says. “They have connected a group of passionate advocates in ways never thought possible before.”

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