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Can 'Specialized Technology' Topics Lead Students into STEM Fields?

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By guest blogger Victoria O'Dea

Jobs in the fields of science, technology, engineering, and math—the so-called "STEM" topics—continue to evolve, and educators and policymakers continue to worry that today's students lack the talent and motivation to pursue studies and careers in those areas.

A new report explores the potential for educators to reach students through one strategy in particular: the use of "specialized technology" in the classroom.

The report was released by the Center for Digital Education, a national research and advisory organization that focuses on K-12 and higher education technology trends. It argues that specialized technology in the classroom can help nurture an enduring interest in STEM fields among K-12 students.

The center defines specialized technologies as tools of use in specific areas of education, or specific disciplines. In classrooms, those technologies would typically take the form of non-traditional learning tools that go well beyond work done on laptop and desktop computers. They would most likely be found in classes with their own distinct curricula, explained LeiLani Cauthen of the center, in an e-mail. Specialized technolgies could include everything from medical robots to wind-taking instruments to audio equipment, she said.

The report, which is free with registration, examines a number of specialized technologies that are not only intended to enhance the learning experience, but also provide students with a deeper understanding of STEM subjects. The authors note that some schools are using specialized technology to encourage collaboration between disciplines, such as integrating arts into math- and science-related fields, the authors say. (That merging of academic areas has been given the label "STEAM" by some educators and policy wonks.)

Some specialized technologies are also creating new opportunities for teachers to engage students, the authors contend. For instance, "virtualization" allows students to use virtual science labs to conduct experiments outside the classroom; 3D printers and rapid prototype machines have led to students collaborating with local businesses to produce prototypes. Even gaming, once seen in some quarters as frivolous, has become accepted as an effective tool to help students comprehend material while developing innovative thinking skills, the report says.

Another potential benefit: Specialized technologies can help students gain familiarity with technology they will later encounter in college and in the workforce, the authors say. They cite work being done at Dunbar High School in Fort Myers, Fla., a Microsoft-certified high school where students receive professional certification in information technology, digital arts, game design, and programming, and engineering through credits earned in elective classes.

The report also explores the uses of specialized technologies in helping students with disabilities make the transition to the workforce. Specifically, assistive technologies, or tech tools that can help students overcome barriers posed by disabilities, bring rewards if teachers and others can find the most appropriate uses tailored to individual students' needs, the authors contend. Those technological tools can encourage special needs students to make successful transitions through school and into the workforce. Examples include interactive software tools that can help children on the autism spectrum develop social and emotional coping skills, and games that use biofeedback to help students learn how to control their emotions.

Using specialized technologies in schools requires careful planning, because even the most promising strategies, as with almost any classroom tool, won't work if they confuse educators. School administrators need to be able to choose the most appropriate technology and train teachers on how to use it, the report says. To that end, the authors included a checklist meant to help teachers and administrators determine if specialized technologies are appropriate for their schools, and how they should be used.

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