STEMwhere: A Kent State University Collaboration
When you think back to learning science, technology, engineering, and mathematics, (STEM) in k-12 education, what comes to mind? Outdated textbooks? Mandatory state standards to meet? Rigorous testing? Perhaps these or more aspects of STEM are all still painfully familiar. But in the digital age, what if they didn’t have to be? What if STEM could instead be fun and engaging for each child?
“People often think of STEM education as something that’s very school-based, but kids spend about 80% of their lives from birth to 18 outside of school,” explains Brad Morris, the Program Coordinator of the Educational Psychology department and Co-Director of Science of Learning and Education Center (SOLE Center) on campus. “So people are wondering what they are doing outside of school.”
Morris is referring to informal learning, and according to him, “there’s a tremendous amount of it that takes place” among children. But it has always been especially difficult to tangibly measure such learning. That is, until now.
Systems Development and Innovation is currently working alongside Morris and his team to develop STEMwhere, an app-based tool that is being developed to measure how kids engage with STEM education.
“A lot of my research is with kids,” says Morris, “and you go into any pre-school and you find kids that are absolutely riveted by science, but unfortunately I think what happens is we actually find a way to sort of dull their normal curiosity about science.”
But STEMwhere aims to be different.
“The big idea is allowing people to tell us when they are engaged in STEM learning and where.”
Specifically, the app is intended to track how children, ages 7 to 15 interact and engage with STEM and report on those experiences, effectively gathering data on what, in particular, about those experiences makes them resonate positively. Each time users are engaged with the app, they are asked to check-in and then respond to a series of brief questions regarding their STEM experience. Their responses can be recorded via a dropdown menu and/or a textbox, if they want to provide details (for younger children, parents are encouraged to help provide feedback).
Once that data is gathered, Morris explains that it can help provide unique insight for institutions where informal learning typically takes place, like science museums. In turn, this can help them recognize both the areas they are having the greatest impact on visitors and also what they can improve on.
Along the way, SDI has been able to provide Morris with the technology and resources to measure informal learning through the design and development of a survey application. By providing his team with the mechanics, aesthetics, and UX/UI support they need, SDI is able to help ensure the application is a success.
A Perfect Match
Currently, STEMwhere is in the midst of its second design phase, and according to Morris, the collaboration with SDI has been “really helpful because John [Dunlosky] and I, who are developing it, have zero idea how to do that stuff. So we’re thrilled that not only do we have people that can help us develop the bells and whistles… but they’ve been really responsive to the things we have needed, and they’ve been able to make great suggestions about how to take our idea and make it much better. They’ve been there on the ground floor, and we’ve just had a great time working with them.”
In particular, student UX/UI designer Van Le has been an essential element to the success of this project, as she has not only helped bring Morris and Dunlosky’s conceptual ideas to life, but she has also taken initiative to seek new areas for improvement and innovation within the STEMwhere app.
“It’s a pretty fun project,” Le says. “They’ve given me a lot of freedom...and I’ve made a few static mockups for [their team] to see how the use of color and design and reframing things and really thinking about their user target can turn data from looking black and white to actually looking appealing. And not only is the appealing part important to get a better user experience from the children; it’s also thinking of how do you phrase your copy to make it playful for them, and that’s the voice of the app that we’re seeking.”
Additionally, Le explains that she has been working on designing a unique onboarding screen, progress bars, color font and copy, and even customized emojis and animation to align with STEMwhere’s voice--something she believes can help enhance the user experience significantly for younger users.
“The app is intended to provide feedback from the children using it, and my job is to really invite the users to want to give feedback--give them a gentle nudge. When you do stuff like that, I think the child gets more interested.”
Indeed, research and and careful decision making can only take an application so far until user feedback is necessary to help make adjustments.
Taking the Next Steps Together
For this reason, Morris explains that he and his team ran a pilot study last summer in which they gave the app to 33 kids from 25 families and asked them to engage with the app whenever they did anything related to STEM. After two months of data collection, one consistent theme the team found among the participants was that the app really did have a profound effect on the children’s learning. Not only did they engage in science more often, but they also began to do so in greater depth.
“All of the things that we know are critical in kids learning about science and getting interested in it,” Morris says.” “Just having access to the app really did seem to sort of have a reactive effect.”
And while Morris does highlight the fact that formal training is still absolutely necessary to the development of children who wish to pursue science seriously, informal experiences remain just as significant. Or as he puts it, “Informal learning can become an incredibly great tool in the arsenal to generate interest moving forward.”
And so now, as he and his team work to make the second version of the app even better, Systems Development and Innovation is naturally just as excited to be involved in this process.
As SDI continues to work alongside Morris and his team on the STEMwhere app, be sure to check back for any new updates in the process!