Students in the Teacher Education Program (TEP) at UCLA’s Graduate School of Education & Information Studies (GSE&IS) recently had the chance to find out if experiential learning floats – literally. At a workshop last month that was funded by the Noyce Foundation, they participated in a NASA UROV (Underwater Remotely Operated Vehicle) workshop, designing and building robotic devices that would potentially be used for underwater exploration.
Gerardo Salazar, an outdoor environmental educator for LAUSD, was one of the facilitators of the NASA UROV workshop. He said that the event was a unique opportunity to introduce the students, who are LAUSD math and science teachers in Center X’s Urban Teacher Residency program, IMPACT, to the idea of experience-based instruction as well as the design process that is used in a variety of STEM fields.
“The idea is to get students interested in the sciences and environmental studies, and also have them learn about career options in the growing green sectors,” Salazar said. “There are industrial applications to UROVs in oil exploration, environmental studies, many industrial uses, and search and rescue as well.”
Having presented similar programs for schoolchildren at Clear Creek Outdoor Education Center in La Cañada Flintridge, Salazar described the virtues of experience-based learning as a contemporary adaptation of the apprenticeship.
“[Education was] more experience-based, back in the early 1900s,” he said. “People learned by doing. We clearly cannot go back to apprenticeship programs, because technology is advancing at such a high rate. However, [we can get] the students to not just cram information and data into their heads, but have them understand and conceptualize a process – in this case, the engineering and design process, — which is going to be part of the Next Generation Science Standards.”
Rick Mbiad is a biology teacher from East Valley High School in North Hollywood. He said that the workshop was an exercise in inquiry as his team collaborated on their UROV design.
“We discovered new things, new patterns,” he noted. “I think this would get [students] thinking about what they can try to accomplish.”
“I think this actually would help my kids… because they really have to think about creating something, designing it, and trying it out,” said Candyce Jones, who teaches 8th grade science at John Muir Middle School. “After they try it out, if something fails, they’ll know what went wrong so they can fix it and try again. It also teaches them that everything’s not going to be perfect the first time, so it helps them practice perseverance, not just in science but as a life skill that they need to learn also.”
Salazar emphasized the importance of instilling “a love of science” among young students in order to maintain an educated STEM workforce, with representation from females and students who are English learners or who have special learning needs.
“We have a real problem in this country where we don’t have enough qualified people in the math and sciences,” said Salazar. “We’re going to have a shortage of engineers in the next 15 to 20 years.
“LAUSD is 72 percent English language learners and/or special needs, so we try to make all the content approachable to all students, regardless of the language they may be speaking at home. Female students appear to show a great amount of interest. By 6th grade, it’s too late – they’re not going to engage in science and there’s going to be little or no interest. So, we need to [engage] them in 4th or 5th grade.”
Jaime Park, TEP faculty advisor, said that while the number of female students in upper level STEM courses has increased, she has observed disparities in their class performance as compared to male students.
“Teachers report that female perform equally or higher on exams and class work,” said Park. “But I do see a big difference in how they participate during class discussions. Many times, I observe boys asking more questions, talking more, and taking leadership roles in the classroom. I think this shapes boys’ and girls’ identities.”
Park said that teachers in the IMPACT program work to address female students’ attitudes toward STEM courses by focusing on content discourse.
“In our program, IMPACT teachers get their students to talk about mathematics and science in meaningful, productive and equitable ways,” she said. “We engage them in observational rounds, where they bring in short video clips of their students talking about content. We reflect on student participation and teaching to think hard about how we support students’ identities as mathematicians and scientists.”
Russell Billings of NASA said that the UROV project was the first time that the agency had put the focus on educating science teachers.
“We want them to have contextual experience that is hands-on and engages in the engineering design process,” he said. “When they’re in their classrooms in the future, they’ll have this kind of experience to draw from. It’s really putting their students in many ways, in charge of their own learning, but facilitating that environment.”
Billings, who has also presented UROV workshops at Clear Creek and the Point Fermin Outdoor Education Center in San Pedro, said that the program provides a sustainable and cost-efficient way to engage young people with STEM skills.
“Once this core [UROV] kit has been acquired, it has unlimited iterations,” he said. “When this is all said and done, this gets broken down and repackaged, and it can be used again. For STEM [equipment], this isn’t really expensive – you can stretch it out over a number of years.
“It really brings out creativity in students, it brings out their ability to work collaboratively,” concluded Billings.
Along with job skills, the teachers agreed that interpersonal skills were a major benefit of the NASA UROV program. Jones said that the workshop showed her that being able to present such a lesson to her students would help her to teach them not only science curriculum, but the habits they need to develop as professionals in whatever fields they choose to enter.
“Collaborating with others and learning how to think and problem-solve are skills that you need in every job, regardless of whether it’s in the science fields or anywhere,” said Jones. “[Students] need to learn how to collaborate, how to communicate, and how to effectively work with others. So these activities do help enhance those skills.”
Imelda Nava-Landeros, TEP faculty advisor, said that the NASA UROV workshop allows math and science teachers to understand how their students can potentially engage with scientific inquiry and the challenges of design.
“This experience has the potential to connect to science and math content, as well as the engineering process and the nature of science,”
“With Common Core State Standards at the forefront, and the Next Generation Science Standards on the horizon, the enactment of inquiry in STEM becomes all the more relevant for today’s math and science teachers,” said Nava-Landeros. “We hope to continue embedding experiential learning in our science and math teacher education programs as our teachers prepare students, who will build, investigate, innovate and care for our communities. Through this process, we hope to remind teachers that their students should question, redesign and persevere through investigations, and also question, re-imagine and engage in the world around them.”
Above: TEP students learn how to present experential learning in their math and science classroom with the NASA UROV workshop at UCLA’s Sunset Canyon Recreation Center. L-R: Rick Mbiad, Candyce Jones, Wendy Hernandez, and Sergio Narez.