In the last decade, the world has seen an explosion of technology. With mass availability of the World Wide Web and the affordability of home computers, technology has continued to change our lives in ways most never dreamed. Devices like smartphones, tablets and e-book readers have combined with the forces of wireless broadband and high-speed connectivity. Add in the social media components such as Facebook, YouTube, Google+, Twitter and Instagram -- just to name a few -- and it seems that technology has blown down the walls between us and the rest of the world. Virtually every aspect of society has felt the impact of changing technology, and education is no different.
Enter Andrew Vanden Heuvel, a teacher at the Michigan Virtual School® who teaches astronomy and AP physics in a virtual environment. The Michigan Virtual School provides online learning opportunities to middle and high school students who may not have access to specific courses on their school campus. This online environment allows students across the state to take the courses they need or want without having to leave their school or home. Any given semester, Vanden Heuvel can have up to 100 students enrolled in his classes, where he uses many popular social media interfaces to connect with students.
As public education steps into the virtual arena, teachers might wonder how to prepare themselves. What did Vanden Heuvel do to help him become a successful online instructor? One step on his path was to participate in NASA’s Endeavor Science Teaching Certificate Project. NASA sponsored four cohorts, with over 50 fellowships granted each year. These were awarded to in-service, alternative-route and pre-service formal educators who were contributing to the development of a science, technology, engineering and mathematics, or STEM, workforce. The ESTCP project content uses NASA content and educational materials.
Vanden Heuvel was chosen to be in the cohort that was the first to be selected to participate in ESTCP. As a fellow in the project, part of his experience was to take five online graduate courses. He writes of the classes, “I had an incredible experience in the program, taking a wide variety of courses that helped me integrate NASA’s tremendous educational resources into my teaching.” As part of the first cohort, Vanden Heuvel also applied research-based pedagogical strategies and cutting-edge STEM content in classroom contexts. With his fellow cohorts, Vanden Heuvel helped create a national network of like-minded educators forming an online community to share information and ideas.
The blended live and asynchronous model for Endeavor's online courses, which integrates content from each of NASA's mission directorates, has given participants the best of both worlds. Participants get to work with challenging STEM content along with expert instructors, scientists and engineers, and they are able to study independently with course work tailored to their individual needs. Vanden Heuvel writes, “The highlight of my Endeavor experience would have to be the two weeks that I spent working at the Teaching From Space Office at (NASA’s) Johnson Space Center. As part of this internship, I was given the opportunity to come up with several physics demonstrations, which were carried out by astronauts on board the International Space Station. I even was able to join the Teaching From Space staff at Mission Control while astronauts were recording educational activities. It was amazing.”
Vanden Heuvel took the knowledge, experience and excitement gained from his ESTCP experience and brought them into his virtual classroom. One of the things he’s found most useful is the emphasis on using real data to teach mathematics and science. He writes, “The Endeavor project emphasizes the use of real data to teach math and science content. NASA has such a tremendous collection of data that teachers and students can use in their classrooms to make the abstract content so much more real. I always try to incorporate real-world data into student projects and labs. Even if we are studying a distant planet or galaxy, there are simple ways to give students access to real, world-class data.”
Participation in the ESTCP offers many benefits. Besides the wealth of data available, NASA also has a large array of lesson plans, projects, videos and imagery relating to NASA’s missions. Another benefit was more intrinsic in that this opportunity has allowed Vanden Heuvel to get to know STEM teachers from across the country. As he writes, “To learn what other teachers are doing was truly inspiring to me in my teaching.”
To engage his students in STEM, Vanden Heuvel uses many technologies for his lesson delivery. Since his courses are all online, he uses video and blogging as his main method of communication. Vanden Heuvel posts and blogs his videos and lessons to the students. He can interact with them using live video websites. Most recently, he was chosen by Google to become an early tester of Google Glass. As part of the Google effort, Vanden Heuvel traveled to Meyrin, Switzerland, and had a tour of the large hadron collider at CERN (the laboratory of the European Organization for Nuclear Research). The benefits of using technology to bring real-life mathematics and science into his virtual classroom have had a tangible impact. Of the experience he writes, “One thing that gets me really excited is that technology has removed the walls from my classroom. Rather than only teaching students enrolled in my class, I can now create content that teaches the whole world about the amazing universe all around us.”
We’ve all heard the expression “think outside the box.” With the use of technology, the “box” of classroom walls is removed completely. Teachers can take students with them on virtual field trips all over the world. Teachers can participate in NASA workshops and bring their students with them virtually. And in doing so, teachers are encouraging their students to become more committed to pursuing STEM careers.
Heather S. Deiss/NASA Educational Technology Services