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Community Colleges

Using Technology to Help STEM Take Root

Community colleges are using cutting-edge technologies to train new cadres of classroom teachers in innovative math and science practices.

Four in 10 K-12 teachers complete at least some of their math and science courses at a community college, according to 2004 research sponsored by the Education Commission of the States ( Clearly, two-year institutions will play a pivotal role in training some portion of the 1,000 STEM educators that the Obama administration says it wants to recruit over the next two years.

Yet the American Association of Community Colleges points out that many of these colleges go beyond standard math and science education programs. In a 2008 report on community colleges’ role in STEM education (, the AACC notes: “The trend in community colleges to move beyond more traditional…programs responds to the nation’s critical need for K-12 teachers in STEM subjects. It also responds to the professional needs of teachers who must keep current in their fields as they vie for the attention of students who have grown up immersed in fast-paced digital media.”

CT looks at two community colleges that are using cutting-edge technologies in STEM professional development programs, part of a movement in community colleges to, in the words of the AACC, “take the lead in providing STEM experiences for current and future K-12 teachers.”

3D Teaching and Learning

At Fayetteville Technical Community College’s (NC) Interactive 3-Dimensional (i3D) program, K-20 teachers from around North Carolina work in teams to craft STEM-focused 3D lessons. David Smith, the college’s director of technology innovations and applications, insists that the focus on 3D is not some Avatar-inspired trend. “I3D enables the visualization of information that is difficult to understand, describe textually, or demonstrate two-dimensionally,” he explains—a key challenge in science education.

I3D participants are recommended by their principals as innovators. After initial on-site curriculum and technology training sessions, teachers are guided by design staff toward concepts best suited to i3D projects. Following the face-to-face training, subject-area teams of eight to 10 teachers work together remotely for the next several months to create 3D objects that will serve as the centerpiece for a broader interactive lesson.

One team, for example, developed a learning object of a human head that allows students to zoom in, rotate 360 degrees, and progressively remove layers to view muscles, blood vessels, nerves, skull, and finally the brain.

Once the central learning object is built, the next challenge is to embed it into an interactive lesson that includes an introduction, activity, and pre- and post-tests. An anatomy lesson, for example, might consist of rolling over a 3D skeleton to see the bones labeled, then disassembling the skeleton, dragging and dropping the bones back into the correct locations, and finally matching bones with their names. This template can be adapted to various topics, such as units on the parts of a car or makeup of an atom.

All communication and project design is conducted through a wiki, with instructional design lead Gayla Keesee and the design team facilitating, storyboarding, and sharing projects through Google Docs. Technologies used in developing the projects include Autodesk’s 3ds Max and EON Reality’s Visualizer.

Jason Harris, a second grade teacher at Southern Pines Primary School in central North Carolina, reports that his i3D Sunnyland Farm project is helping students better understand weather concepts. His students clamor to visit the interactive farm, where audio-supported activities include “flying” up into the sky to explore various cloud types, or going on a scavenger hunt to read weather instruments. Harris sees a particular change in the engagement of at-risk students, who find the game-like atmosphere both familiar and motivating. “Just the opportunity for repeated exposure to the material has made a huge difference,” he says.

As FTCC students complete i3D lessons, they’re added to the North Carolina Learning Object Repository and become available to educators statewide. To take advantage of these 3D activities, teachers need a projector, screen, laptop, and 3D glasses for viewers.

For those looking to implement similar programs, Smith emphasizes the importance of having the technology and financial resources in place, if necessary sharing a media center and grant writers with other institutions, and partnering with businesses, associations, or government agencies. Current partnerships for the i3D project include the National Science Foundation, the North Carolina Community College Virtual Learning Community, and several others.

Phase two of i3D will focus on measuring the impact of the program, Smith says, plus a probable expansion of the i3D lessons to mobile devices. “Technology is changing and getting cheaper all the time, so the possibilities are expanding on a daily basis.”

A Summer of Science

Two years ago, Chippewa Valley Technical College (WI) became the host of the Cray Academy Summer Institute, a program founded in the late 1980s by supercomputer company Cray to improve K-20 science and math instruction.

At the Institute, educator participants spend four days receiving hands-on training from practitioners, master teachers, and other experts on emerging technologies that can help them enhance their teaching of math, science, early literacy, and other subjects.

The college supports training in advanced technologies via digital classrooms fully equipped with computers, cameras, projectors, DVD players, high-powered digital microscopes, and other resources. In addition, CVTC’s IT department can deploy custom software to computer labs for the Cray Academy from a central location, enabling the college to provide a wide range of training with little lead time or cost involved. (CVTC has outsourced management of its IT to SunGard Higher Education.)

Content for the Cray Academy Summer Institute is determined through collaboration with the Cooperative Educational Service Agency (CESA) 10, a regional K-12 education services agency, with an eye toward state and federal initiatives as well as local district needs and national trends.

Rick Schauss is a CVTC instructor in electromechanical technology but he was also one of the 300 students in the 2010 Summer Institute, taking a robotics class. During the course, Schauss shared with his fellow students how his own industrial robotics program works, offering a half-day “field trip” to his lab on another CVTC campus.

“I wanted to meet the high school science instructors, find out what they were doing, and also share some of my own techniques with the group,” he explains.

The class used the Stamps in Class kit from Parallax, which teaches basic programming via a small Boe-Bot robot, sensors, and other components. Boe-Bots can be programmed, for example, to sense light, temperature, and sound, the response to which might be an indicator of a machine or motor malfunction.

“The kits give kids a chance to create hands-on projects rather than just working on abstract formulas,” says Schauss. “As a result of the this class, I saw the light go on for a lot of high school science teachers who had not had a chance to use the kit. They could see how the activity would raise student expectations and interest in science.”

Other STEM classes offered through the Summer Institute cover a broad range of topics. A micro- and nano-
biotechnology class looks at how those technologies are used in biological and agricultural applications—for example, to detect and identify DNA and proteins, to mimic biological systems, and many other “real-world” uses that will aid students in future careers. Other classes focus on how emerging technologies and new tools, such as Google Earth and digital tablets, can be applied to enable differentiated instruction in classrooms across the K-12 spectrum.

CVTC’s partnership with CESA 10 is key to its ability to draw in Wisconsin teachers, says Karin Rassbach, user services manager for the college. She advises community colleges that want to offer similar programs to “reach out to local educational service centers to learn the wants and needs of K-12 educators, and build the program from there.”

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