Friday, September 17, 2010

Make a STEM Difference: Hands-on Learning

Education is opportunity. Science education is infrastructure innovation opportunity. USA faces aging roads, pipes, transportation; developed a while back with technologies that we now know to be unsustainable. In true Silicon Valley style, we want to turn the challenge into an opportunity to invent completely new methods of building roads, bridges, supply pipes, aeroplanes; not only create environmental benefit, but even build in the IT infrastructure (can't do without computers now can we?) right into it - adding tomorrow to yesterday for a better future for all.

The message was heard loud and clear by about 70 junior scientists (5th-7th graders) with the help of some 20 senior scientists (volunteers from HP, Google and others) at the bay area National Lab Day back to school event. The scientists sat on tables of 10 with the assignment of discovering "What is OOBLECK? Solid, Liquid or Gas?" by doing experiments collaboratively. Josh Becker of New Cycle Capital led the afternoon which included a fun speech from Chandrakant Patel of HP Labs exhorting the junior scientists to get back to tinkering and getting their hands dirty. Speaking from the the trenches (i.e. us senior scientists amidst  budding future inventors), the energy generated from the OOBLECK experiment exceeded our wildest expectations . In just a few hours I saw the following:
- some grasped the notion of doing an experiment to validate/invalidate a theory
- some saw the importance of writing their findings
- all were engaged: one child who had been sitting with his head down interacting with no one - started talking and sharing once the lab got started
- all had fun: simply because real life intervened - when OOBLECK was "poured" into plastic bags - many bags had tiny leaks - for some OOBLECK flowed out - for others it dripped. As junior scientists started stopping the dripping - they learned and they got their hands and lab coats messy - creating much mirth and merriment.
- many junior scientists came up with "tests" of their own to try
- the senior scientists didn't have any better clue about what oobleck was than the junior - emphasising the importance of gathering your own data (and documenting - in case you got into an argument).

I thought the experiment design was really good and I hope gets replicated in other forums. It all worked at so many levels.  I have been engaged with STEM education in various capacities for many many years now - I saw an excitement from the children in short 3 hours that I have not seen before.

Hands-on, challenge based learning works. It also brought the kids together and it is FUN!

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