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Learning Library Blog WHAT WORKS: Program turns teachers into STEM researchers
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WHAT WORKS: Program turns teachers into STEM researchers

By Nicole Krueger
March 18, 2018
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Cybersecurity is the digital Wild West, and students at College Station High School in Texas are preparing for it by creating a virtual network and using it to practice stopping simulated attacks – just like real-world cybersecurity researchers do.

Science and technology teacher John Gerzik developed the unit after spending his summer working on a computer science research team at Texas A&M University where he studied how to stop network attacks as part of the SECURE Project, a six-week research experience for teachers funded by the National Science Foundation.

“Real-world experience in STEM areas is such a moving target,” says Trina Davis, associate professor and academic program chair for the university’s Department of Teaching, Learning and Culture. “Quite a bit of research has happened even in the last 10 years. When you think about exposing secondary students to this kind of big, real-world science, it’s very important for those teachers to make sure they’re current and have a chance to expand their content knowledge in these application areas.”

The SECURE Project blends real-world research, project-based learning and curriculum development to give educators an engaging STEM learning experience they can pass along to their students. In addition to performing lab research, participants work closely with Davis to develop a grade-appropriate cybersecurity unit – complete with lesson plans, activities and assessments – to use in their classrooms.

Why does it work?

IT’S AN IMMERSIVE EXPERIENCE. Educators in the program pair up with Ph.D. researchers in computer science and engineering to tackle cybersecurity research problems like how to embed and decode messages in Sudoku puzzles. “Their experience in the lab is really a chance for teachers to be authentically engaged in research,” Davis says. “What does research within the area of cybersecurity look like? They literally are an additional member on that research team for six weeks.”

EDUCATORS GAIN CURRICULUM DESIGN TOOLS. To adapt their research for the classroom, educators learn how to map out their existing STEM curriculum and use backward curriculum design to see where new innovations can be integrated. “Curriculum maps are valuable planning tools for teachers, helping them to begin with the end in mind and chart a course for the year,” Davis says.

STUDENTS GET A TASTE OF REAL-WORLD STEM. Educators get to experience inquiry and project-based learning in an authentic laboratory context, which they can then emulate for their students. “Now they have experience with what project-based learning looks like,” Davis says. “These are good strategies for designing these types of projects.”

The SECURE Project stems from a partnership between the university’s teacher education and computer science and engineering faculties, including Shelly Tornquist, director of PK-12 engineering education outreach; Philip Ritchey, instructional assistant professor for the Department of Computer Science and Engineering; Cecelia Lawley, assistant vice chancellor for academic and outreach programs; and Mark Weichold, regents professor and associate dean for academic affairs. The program will continue to expand the scientific capacity of local educators for the next four years.

“Areas like cybersecurity and programming are emerging as a big focus,” Davis says. “We’re providing opportunities for teachers to gain knowledge and insights into the engineering concepts inside cybersecurity with the goal of getting K-12 learners and junior college students excited about these careers.”

Game helps students level up their learning

They might look like ordinary third graders, but in the classroom, they’re astronauts-in-training. Their mission: Find a new planet with enough resources to sustain humankind.

Throughout the year, they work in teams and complete special assignments to advance their mission. The skills and experience they gain help them “level up” to become astronauts, pilots and eventually commanders. The team with the most experience points at the end of the year succeeds in finding a new home for humanity.
“It creates such an immersive classroom culture,” says Heather Marrs a third grade teacher at Eagle Rock Elementary School in southern Oregon who has gamified her entire class curriculum into a year-long space exploration adventure.

“We all have a goal we’re working toward together, and we get to collaborate and encourage each other. Those types of things roll over into everything else we’re doing in the classroom – right into learning.”

Gamification, she says, can be a simple matter of layering game mechanics on top of existing curriculum, using an overarching theme to tie everything together. It can work for a single lesson or unit, or for an entire school year. Marrs took one of her most popular units – the solar system – and created a story around it. Then she attached experience points to certain actions such as turning in work on time, demonstrating good behavior, performing various tasks and challenges and completing voluntary assignments.

“It gives them the opportunity to practice their skills outside of class without making it homework,” she says. “Students have done some amazing huge projects I never would have assigned – and they get no grade for it.”

Why does it work?

TEACHERS CAN BUILD AS THEY GO. When Marrs started brainstorming ways to gamify her curriculum, she realized many of the things she was already doing could be easily adapted to fit the game model. She started out with a few simple basics – a theme, a mission and a list of ways for students to level up – and built from there. “The neat thing is you can build the plane while flying it,” she says. “You don’t have to have everything set up and ready to go before you launch your game.”

STUDENTS HAVE A VOICE IN THE GAME. When students complete an optional side mission, they get to choose how to present it. They also get to help decide what privileges they earn when they level up. Having a voice helps students take ownership of their learning and encourages them to unleash their creativity while practicing new skills. The class evaluates each project together and assigns experience points based on the effort put in. “One of most powerful parts of the game is that lot of it is driven by students,” Marrs says.

THEY GO THE EXTRA MILE. Even simple game mechanics can reinforce positive work habits and learning behaviors while motivating students to put extra effort into their schoolwork. When asked to document five things they did over their holiday break, some students made posters while others did slideshow presentations. One student turned in more than 15 photos and wrote a page about each activity.

“When kids show up at school and are excited and engaged and feel like they’re part of a culture in the classroom that is encouraging and exciting, they’re going to put more effort into everything else they do to learn throughout day,” Marrs says. “It has a huge effect on their learning.”

Nicole Krueger is a freelance writer and journalist with a passion for finding out what makes learners tick.