Because STEM has such a broad context, many different kinds of tools and resources can be used. A quick search on the web for “STEM tools” will return millions of hits. Visit your local department store, go to the toys section, and you will see boxes full of toys that the manufacturer claims to offer “STEM” learning opportunities.
Much of this is, of course, marketing. In this article I will lay out the attributes that I look for in a STEM teaching tool. I will also explain why I think that the Arduino is an excellent STEM teaching tool, even for teachers and students that are just starting now.
Here’s my list of 5 criteria for determining whether a new toy is a good tool for teaching STEM.
1. Potential for exploration
The first reason for the existence of a tool that claims to be suitable for teaching STEM is that they have to provide multiple opportunities for genuine learning.
A tool that asks the student to construct a wheeled robot by assembling some plastic parts, and then use a controller device to control the robot’s movement, does not offer genuine learning, other than following a set of rules.
If the robot can be programmed to execute a few movement patterns automatically, then the learning opportunities are more and more interesting. The student will have the opportunity to learn some programming using the robot’s programming language. Often, small STEM robots include some simple sensors and actuators (devices that can do things like make a noise, light up or produce movement). Such features, combined with a programming language and interface, can provide opportunities for genuine learning.
The more plentiful and diverse these opportunities are, the better suited a particular tool is in the context of STEM education.
2. Scope and growth potential
Many tools that claim to be suitable for STEM education are designed for specific demographics. Take, for example, tools designed specifically for very young children who are not yet able to read. To teach such children how to make a robot to move programmatically, they substitute a text-based programming language with one that uses graphical symbols, such as Scratch. They also design the hardware so that it doesn’t have any small detachable parts (a choking hazard) and have no exposed connectors or interchangeable parts. Because of these alterations, such tools have limited scope. The students will need to move on to a new tool as they quickly exhaust the learning opportunities that it provides them.
While tools designed to cover specific ages and learning needs have their place, I always think ahead in time. What should be the next step for the student? How can I transition a student to the next level in their learning once the tool on which they are dependent on so far, becomes inadequate?
3. Price (cheap to acquire, no problem if it breaks)
There is a continuous creep towards more expensive classroom equipment. Marketing is a big part of this, but there is also the issue of competitive pressures between equipment manufacturers who feel that they have to push the envelope of the kind of features that they can integrate into their STEM tools.
Take the example of the Raspberry Pi, initially a $30 credit card-sized computer. Third-party manufacturers are now offering add-on equipment that can convert the Raspberry Pi into a full-sized laptop computer, with a screen, keyboard, power supply, case, and other peripherals. The price for a full kit is comparable to that of a typical laptop computer. The manufacturer claims that this combo offers superior educational experiences to the bare Raspberry Pi, but does it do that? One has to think about what is the educational return on the considerable investment for a device like that.
In my experience, it is interesting to see how educational value is often the inverse function of the price of a tool. The more expensive a STEM tool is, the less educational value it offers.
4. Open platform
With the increasing importance of STEM in education, the industry has responded with many tools that claim superior educational experiences.
However, as in point 3, we should scrutinize these claims. Education is a big business, and manufacturers have an incentive to capture their audience/customers in closed ecosystems. In very few cases such an approach is beneficial for the learner. Often, we see closed systems that work well in specific learning contexts, such as learning about programming, but not well in others, such as learning about electronics.
Closed platforms are those where the hardware is controlled exclusively by a single manufacturer. In almost every case, such platforms sell for high prices (impacts negatively point 3), have a limited choice of add-on components that can be used to extend their educational scope, and have limited documentation (impacts point 5).
I give preference to educational tools and hardware that are open in nature. Tools like the Arduino come with a diverse ecosystem ensuring choice of parts, low prices, and a considerable amount of documentation. All this shifts the advantage to the learner.
5. Online teaching and learning resources
Similarly to Metcalfe’s law, educational tools with an abundance of online resources are far more useful in education that those that don’t.
Take, again, the Arduino as an example. When it comes to STEM hardware, the Arduino is perhaps the platform with the most significant collection of curriculums, books, code samples, designs samples, experiments, how-to guides, and anything else that a teacher or student can need. On top of this, there are far more people that are familiar with the Arduino and can support that on virtually any other platform.
A search on eBay or Amazon is enough to find and source any component in existence, for a meagre price. No matter what kind of experiment you want to design, whether it measures greenhouse gas concentration in your classroom or build an electric train simulation, chances are that you can make it using an Arduino.
Before you commit to using a single provider’s teaching resources, consider the open alternatives and decide if that benefit is worth the loss of richness.
The Arduino is one of the few STEM tools that satisfy these five suitability criteria.
The Arduino revolutionised electronics making by bringing together a single board (the Arduino) that provides the processing centre for whatever the maker is making, and multiple input and output connectors. These connectors make it possible for the maker to connect things like lights and motors to their Arduino so that the Arduino can interact with them. The Arduino’s innovation, however, was in the software. The software that runs on the Arduino was designed so that people without a background in programming and even electronics can quickly pick up and start making their own.
An Arduino program is called a ‘sketch’, which is a reminder to makers that everything they make is an experiment, a sketch, and is temporary. The maker will continuously tweak their creation, whether a tower from Lego building blocks or an electronic gadget based on the Arduino. Makers always iterate their creations to improve them or to simply try something else.
With the Arduino, the ability to iterate quickly was particularly important, and hence the emphasis on simple hardware interfacing using standardised inputs and outputs, and easy sketching using a simplified programming language and a bare-minimal programming interface that runs on any computer.
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