By Stephen Laming
Many Upper School students know Daniel Bartels, Collegiate’s STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) Coordinator, as the leader of the Upper School robotics team. But Bartels is also involved in Middle School STEAM efforts. Over the last two years Bartels, with the help of Dan Bell – Collegiate’s Middle School Technology Coordinator – has been leading the effort to integrate technology into the lives of Middle School students. Middle School science classes have already begun to incorporate STEAM-based projects into the curriculum and Middle School computer classes have recently been redesigned to develop more coding skills. Bartels and Bell are now working towards the goal of having technology-based projects beyond just science and computer classes, as well as introducing more students to the world of STEAM.
This year, the Middle School has two teams registered to compete in the FIRST Lego League Challenge. FIRST (For Inspiration and Recognition of Science and Technology) is an international organization that aims to “inspire young people to be science and technology leaders and innovators.” Each team consists of eight students, with a mix of boys and girls. The teams have two objectives: research and develop a solution to a real-world problem, and design and build a robot to compete on a playing field. Each year a different problem facing humanity is chosen, and this year both teams will be researching issues with how humans use and dispose of water and its effects on our water supply. Through the process of developing a functioning robot, students learn how to make a plan, work as a team, and practice sportsmanship. Collegiate hopes this will be an exciting and memorable experience and will encourage more kids to join STEAM fields.
Team kickoff was the first day of school, Tuesday, August 29. While at kickoff, the teams were informed of the topic they would be working on and given the challenges they would face. Within the first week of school, the teams had already built a mock course to practice on. Teams meet in the school week during Middle School activity periods, and with the help of parent volunteers they also meet outside of school to build.
Another piece of new technology being introduced to the Middle School is an Oculus Rift Virtual Reality (VR) headset. A VR headset is a device that is worn like a pair of goggles, with a screen in front of each eye. It has speakers that rest on each ear and sensors that monitor the motion and activity of each hand. Coupled with a computer running appropriate software, an Oculus Rift can create a virtual simulation of almost any environment. For Latin class, it could simulate walking through the city of Pompeii, or in history it could make a student feel like they are visiting a Syrian refugee camp, sitting right next to a child learning math. “It has the capacity to develop empathy,” says Bartels. On the non-academic side, it is easy to get lost in the variety of games offered for the Oculus. Currently, some the more popular games consist of virtual rock climbing in a jungle and a game where the wearer can play catch with a robot.
While new technology is interesting and exciting to use, the ultimate goal is more than making students have fun in class. “[New technology] is an opportunity for students to be producers of content,” says Bartels. The traditional model of school is one where students come every day ready to ingest information given to them in class, only to recite it later for a test. But research has shown that a curriculum based on projects instead of lectures develops real-world skills much better. Dr. Sylvia Chard, a professor of Childhood Education at the University of Alberta, says “One of the major advantages of project work is that it makes school more like real life.” Bartels agrees with this concept and believes that with the addition of new technology in the classroom, Collegiate can work towards incorporating more project-based learning into the curriculum.