Thursday, February 27, 2014

The promise & reality of GBL in Science

Citizen Science shown in GameUp
Though I am not a Science teacher, Science was by far my favorite subject in school. I enjoyed the occasional English class, but Science was awesome. I loved labs in Chemistry, Biology, and Geology. Somehow I missed Physics (probably when I took AP Biology), but I bet I would have loved that too.

The sad fact is, that due to shrinking budgets, time constraints, and, at times, facilities constraints, Science class in many schools is less and less about actual science and more and more about textbook reading and information recall. This is where games and simulations are coming in to fill the gaps. I get that a game is never going to replace real research and lab work, but it is certainly a better substitute than worksheet packets.

My school building has added two new Science teachers for next year. I would love to be able to share some great game based learning resources with them. That got me thinking, what would I recommend? What's out there? What is the current state of game based learning when it comes to Science?

Promising stuff

There are a lot of companies now that are producing solid simulations and games in science field. Some of these projects are in their infancy. Some have been forgotten and neglected rather than reiterated and expanded. Still, with the current STEM focus in education and the sheer awesomeness and promise of these projects, it's worth taking a look. With that said, let's take a look at some of the most promising games and simulations I've seen lately for science. 

Cyber STEM Academy

Cyber STEM Academy "is a virtual network of 3D schools. The schools serve as a multi-user platform to manage learning activities as well as student achievements" (CSAInfo).

I spoke with members of the team from Immersive3d this last weekend at EdSurge Baltimore. They definitely have a good handle on Games and Simulations in the classroom. They're currently partnering with Baltimore County Public Schools to develop some great content. This project is in the early stages, but it looks very promising.

Tuesday, February 25, 2014

Better classrooms by design

Classroom design is a topic I just can't stop thinking about. My regular readers will know that I'm a bit obsessed with all things design. Being such a grid-loving, whitespace-promoting, typeface-discerning, color-monitoring design-nerd has caused me to begin to notice how poorly we've designed our learning spaces.

It has taken me so long to get to this topic because my primary readers are teachers. As teachers, I feel, we have the least control over how our classrooms are designed. We have no control over the size and shape of our room. We can't paint. We can't change or add lighting. We can't even pick our furniture. If you're a computer lab teacher, like me, you are even more limited, particularly if your room was designed with drop poles (Mine are rammed right in the center of my room).  There are, however, a few things we can do and can stop doing, right now, to improve the environment of our classroom.

The Problem with Classroom Design

Everything comes back to 21st century skills and learning that truly supports said skills, rather than just providing lip service. If we're really going to develop a future workforce that is comprised of creative critical thinkers who can think creatively, work creatively with others, implement innovations, use systems thinking, adapt to change, interact effectively with others, and so on, we need to begin developing learning environments that foster such skills. Our current standard classrooms tend to foster unquestioning compliance, disengagement, solitude, inflexible finite thinking, and occasionally, extreme distraction.

Some of the things I'm going to discuss here are just common sense, or they at least should be. As Inc notes in the article, 10 Office Design Tips to Foster Creativity, "On vacation, would you ever choose a hotel with fluorescent lighting and drab grey rooms?" (inc). The answer should be obvious. Of course, not everything is obvious when it comes to designing spaces for learning. The SKG project has established "seven principles of learning space design which support... a learning environment which is student-centered student-centered, collaborative, and experiential." Here are their seven principles:
  1. Comfort: a space which creates a physical and mental sense of ease and well-being
  2. Aesthetics: pleasure which includes the recognition of symmetry, harmony, simplicity and fitness for purpose
  3. Flow: the state of mind felt by the learner when totally involved in the learning experience
  4. Equity: consideration of the needs of cultural and physical differences
  5. Blending: a mixture of technological and face-to-face pedagogical resources
  6. Affordances: the “action possibilities” the learning environment provides the users, including such things as kitchens, natural light, wifi, private spaces, writing surfaces, sofas, and so on.
  7. English: Framework for 21st Century Learning
    English: Framework for 21st Century Learning (Photo credit: Wikipedia)
  8. Repurposing: the potential for multiple usage of a space (The SKG project)

I would say that most of our classrooms do not lend themselves to any of these. We're even failing on aesthetics, let alone comfort, affordances, and repurposing. It's not like we are acting out of ignorance either. You don't have to go far on the TV dial to find a show on interior design these days, and you don't need to walk or drive very far from your home to find businesses that employ great design to attract and keep customers. Most of us should be able to at least recognize good design by now.

Monday, February 24, 2014

Fixing Teach with Portals issues.

I must say that when I learned abut Steam for Schools, I was totally stoked. In my classroom it has been nothing short of awesome. Unfortunately, lately the SFS initiative has looked a bit like one of the dilapidated Aperture test facilities at the start of Portal 2. Valve isn't feeling the love for those of us wandering in the wilds of Public Ed. For those of you who signed up and are experiencing multiple crash issues, connection errors, and myriad other issues, here's how I got my Portal 2 installs back up and running. If you have to do this on 30 workstations, pack an extra sandwich (or potato) and plan to stay late after school.