Tuesday, May 17, 2011

A summary of my Hardie Fellowship

What follows is a brief summary of my experiences at Tufts University as a result of my Hardie Fellowship. This was prepared as part of a report that I was required to submit to the Education Minister.

Location of travel (travel destinations):
Tufts University, Boston, USA (Hardie Fellowship)

General statement of value of travel:
During his six months based at the Tufts University’s Center For Engineering Education and Outreach (CEEO), Rob Torok undertook study in the areas of robotics-based engineering, mathematics education and educational psychology.

Companies/organisations contacted:
Rob worked closely with staff and students at Tufts University over a six-month period, and had numerous opportunities to meet and work with representatives from a wide range of organisations that support STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) Education. These included robotics pioneers and industry stakeholders from LEGO Education, National Instruments, Pitsco Education, Harvard’s Microrobotics Lab, The MIT Media Lab, Texas Instruments, iRobot, Willow Garage, Deka, Vernier, and Boston’s Museum of Science.

Outcomes of fellowship:
Rob undertook study in three main areas: robotics-based engineering, mathematics education and educational psychology. He learned about these areas through his participation as a member of the Tufts community and the CEEO, but also participated in four classes with recognised experts in these fields. The key themes and emerging trends highlighted within each of these focus areas are outlined below.

Robotics-based engineering
(“ME-84 Introduction to Robotics” with Professor Chris Rogers
and “EN-10 Simple Robotics” with Assoc. Professor Ethan Danahy)
  • Rob has collected a wide range of ideas for robotics projects and challenges that will be useful in his classes, as well as those of his colleagues.
  • The central “big idea” in engineering education is that of the “Engineering Design Process”. It describes an iterative, multi-step, approach used by engineers to identify a problem and formulate a solution.
  • Massachusetts was the first state in the US (and perhaps the first in any jurisdiction?) to explicitly include Engineering in its K-12 curriculum. The benefits of this approach are manifold and are becoming increasingly evident.
  • When students work on an engineering problem, they necessarily work in a different way to the traditional classroom. For example, engineering problems are “messy”, and require the student to clarify and possibly even redefine the problem itself. Engineering problems can not (or should not?) be stripped down to a series of mindless “turn to page 18 and work down the left hand side”-type exercises.
  • There some interesting implications for the role of evaluation and assessment in the context of engineering design challenges. For example, engineering provides a very powerful context for self- and peer-assessment. How does one assess the role of the individual in a team-based task?
  • Researchers at the CEEO have demonstrated the positive effects of applying an engineering design approach to learning in Science. An untapped area for further exploration will be the ways in which a focus on Engineering might support learning in Mathematics.
Mathematics education
(“ED-112: Mathematical Learning Environments” with Professor Judah Schwartz)
  • Students find it easier to conceptualise mathematics when it is framed in terms of “objects” and “actions”. In arithmetic, for example, the objects are numbers and the actions include the familiar operations of multiplication and addition.
  • In algebra, the “object” of study is less clear, and this may be one reason that many students struggle with the topic. There is, however, a strong case for treating functions as the fundamental objects in algebra.
  • In educational generally, but especially in mathematics, habits of mind are far more important than content. One of the goals of mathematics education, should be for students to learn to think like, and have the disposition to act like, mathematicians. It is counter-productive to have too tight a focus on “covering” content.
  • Students at all ages can, and should, be invited and encouraged to create and test all manner of mathematics, including conjectures, investigations, measurement instruments, and even units of measurement.
  • Technology can help us to provide students with tools that are suitable for making and exploring mathematical creations.
  • If classroom mathematics is framed in terms of modelling, then it provides a context for mathematics that is inherently practical, and lends itself to an applied approach far more readily than is traditional.
Educational psychology
(“ED-191 Students Resources for Learning in Science and Other Disciplines” with Professor David Hammer)
  • Whereas students are often portrayed as having misconceptions that are strongly held and hinder learning (and therefore must be confronted and removed, etc.), the position of Hammer and his colleagues is that this view overemphasises the disconnect between novices and experts, conflicts with a constructivist explanation of learning, and is itself a barrier to learning.
  • An alternative view is that instead of misconceptions, or indeed conceptions, existing as well-formed, robust, and static forms in the mind, knowledge exists in smaller pieces of cognitive structure. These pieces of knowledge, that Hammer calls “resources”, are “activated” as required, sometimes productively, sometimes not.
  • How do we learn what it is that our students understand about a particular topic? One approach is simply to talk with them! Two questions in particular were central to the course...
  • What do students know that is useful? e.g. what are the starting points for expert understanding?
  • What can students already do? e.g. what sorts of reasoning can they do that is basis of scientific thinking?

As a part of the team at the CEEO, Rob contributed to the development of software and hardware tools used to facilitate K-12 STEM education. Following on from this involvement, the Director of the CEEO, Professor Chris Rogers, has invited Rob to continue working with the CEEO formally on short- and long-term project development.

Skills and understandings obtained:
As part of his studies, Rob become proficient in LabVIEW, a graphical programming environment developed by National Instruments (NI). LabVIEW is an industry standard platform used primarily by mechanical engineers for data acquisition and instrument control. Due to the work of the CEEO, it has also been the basis of the two leading programming languages used for LEGO robotics over the past decade. In recent years, the CEEO has working closely with NI in the development of a new LEGO robotics toolkit that will allow student to gain a better understanding of LabVIEW. Rob used LabVIEW in his studies to program robots for a range of weekly assignments, and then passed an accreditation test to be recognised as a “Certified LabVIEW Associate Developer”.

Rob also had the opportunity to become proficient with the use of SAM Animation, another innovative software product developed by the CEEO. SAM Animation was designed for the classroom and allows students to create stop motion and time-lapse movies using a computer and a webcam. It provide opportunities for students to learn about a topic by thinking about it a different way and recording what they know.

Benefits to Tasmania:
Rob has already started using what he learned during his fellowship in both his face-to-face and online classes, and has been sharing with colleagues in his own school as well as the teachers in the schools involved in his online robotics class, SmartBots. He is also keen to continue sharing what he has learned as opportunities arise, for example in presentations at conferences, through the production of online tutorials, and through his web site (http://robtorok.blogspot.com/).

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