The Trials and Tribulations of Technology in the Classroom

BY Shelby Landsman 7/11/17 6:24 AM

I recently had the opportunity to sit through a professional development class we hosted for a local school at the SparkFun office. While I was listening in, one thing that was brought up really stuck with me and got me thinking. One of the teachers in the class mentioned that she was hesitant to teach STEM in her classroom because she didn’t like the idea of adding more technology to the lives of her students. She wanted her students to read more or go play outside.

Playing Outside vs. Teaching Electronics

My initial instinct was that the teacher was right. We live in a society today where toddlers know how to work an iPad, students have to complete most of their assignments online...and don’t even get me started on social media! However, as the session continued, my thoughts soon changed.

I agree that technology is taking over our youth. When I was a kid, I used to play in the creek catching frogs until dinner time — but times are changing. I think we all need to realize that our future is technology, and our youths are just channeling their inner genius!  

Instead of worrying about how much technology kids are using, we should be worrying about what they are gaining from that experience. Just because the world is different from the one we grew up in doesn’t mean we should be afraid of it.

Playing outside is as much about learning to get along with others as it is about learning to overcome challenges and finding our inner creativity. Don’t get me wrong; I still think it is important for kids to have the chance to read a book or run around outside, but it’s also important for them to learn the skills that are going to be necessary for life in the future.

problem solving circuits

What is often missed in the debate between being outside and using technology are the challenges that kids encounter when using technology and the joy they find in solving a problem. Learning electronics and coding is all about problem solving, creativity and teamwork. From the challenges students face when they can’t figure out the error in their code to the collaboration between students working toward a common goal, to the all-consuming joy they feel when they finally solve the problem and figure out what was wrong — there are so many valuable learning moments that grow both the emotional and social well-being of our children.

Teaching electronics and coding creates an environment that encourages error — one where searching YouTube for help is acceptable, and being wrong can also be right. This environment leads to deeper learning than just reading a book or listening to a lecture.

The Definition of a Circuit

For example, according to Wikipedia (and many other sources), the definition of a circuit is “a model of computation in which input values proceed through a sequence of gates, each of which computes a function.”

After reading that, do you have a better understanding of what a circuit is? I know I kind of get it, but not really. Now, try using that definition to teach a 10-year-old what a circuit is. It won’t be easy.

Instead of using a “textbook” definition, why not try making the concept come to life using copper tape, LEDs and a battery? Seriously, that’s all it takes to make a circuit. (Technically, you can make one with just an LED and a battery, but it’s nowhere near as fun or interesting.) Go over each part of the paper circuit, discuss what happens if the circuit isn’t complete and have students make their own. Then, watch the excitement on their faces as they watch the LED light up. If you watch long enough, some students may even begin asking questions and experimenting with their circuit.

The Importance of Hands-On Learning

Watching students explore the trials and tribulations of creating a circuit is where things get really interesting. They will learn so much more by making a circuit  themselves than they ever would from reading about what a circuit is and how it works.

And that is why it’s important not to get caught up worrying about how much screen time students are already getting, or whether they are able to spend enough time outside. Because, at its core, hands-on learning is almost the same thing as playing outside. It’s the time when we all get to try new things and practice problem solving in a safe environment where it’s OK to ask questions and to fail, as long as we keep trying.

Have you faced challenges with using technology in the classroom? How did you overcome them? We want to hear from you in the comments below!

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