Home / Posts Tagged "Project-Based Learning"

February 5, 2015

To address a critical shortage of K-12 computer science teachers, students and courses, the Texas Regional Collaboratives for Excellence in Science and Mathematics Teaching (TRC) hosted a workshop in Austin that brought together computer science researchers, educators and technology industry representatives.

Jason Turnbull

Jason Turnbull of Fort Worth ISD explores an interactive display board at the TACC Vizualization Lab during the TRC CS Network Training.

The TRC, which is part of the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction, offers award-winning, high quality, research-based STEM professional development to teachers statewide.

“In case anyone still needs convincing,” said Carol Fletcher, the TRC’s associate director and event organizer, “there’s a wealth of data showing a dire problem in computer science education. Last year, only 15,000 students in the entire state of Texas took computer science I, II or AP classes, and only 90 new teachers passed the certification exam to teach the subject.”

“Even though 20 percent of the jobs in Austin are in technology, and statistics show that by 2020 the U.S. is going to need at least a million more programmers, the number of new computer science degree holders is steadily falling. The TRC is committed to reversing this trend.”

According to Fletcher, the Texas high school teachers who are part of the TRC’s computer science network and who attended the workshop will be among the leaders who transform computer science education around the state.

To create a strong Texas computer science pipeline, workshop participants examined solutions that included:

  • investing in a statewide, systemic program to train and certify skilled computer science teachers
  • incentivizing districts to offer computer science through weighted funding
  • increasing the number of high-level, project-based computer education courses
  • developing online and volunteer resources that connect high schools with interesting, accomplished professionals in computer science fields
  • aggressively recruiting females and minorities with messages and activities specifically targeted to them
  • marketing the variety and scope of possible careers

Kim Garcia

Kim Garcia of Georgetown ISD

Lorilyn Owens, director of Oracle Academy North America, outlined her company’s involvement. “The TRC model helps foster a strong and supportive community of practice, and offers additional support for educators at the regional and state levels.  We are honored to collaborate with an inspirational leader like Carol Fletcher in order sustain and grow Texas’ commitment to computer science education and educators.”

Among the state and national stakeholders who spoke at the workshop were Owen Astrachan, a computer science professor at Duke University; Hal Speed and Jake Baskin with Code.org; Tricia Berry, director of UT Austin’s Women in Engineering Program and the Texas Girls Collaborative Project; Tyra Crockett, senior marketing manager with Oracle Academy; Lien Diaz, the College Board’s senior director of curriculum and content development; and Rosalia Gomez with UT Austin’s Texas Advanced Computing Center (TACC). IBM, Oracle Academy, TCEA, Dell and the TACC sponsored the event.

“You know, people don’t say, ‘I’m not a reading person,’ but every time you turn around you hear someone say, ‘I’m not a math person,’” said Berry. “It’s crucial that we work on dispelling negative stereotypes and incorrect information about STEM fields and subjects. It’s about creativity as much as the arts are, and it’s about problem solving, exploring and designing. If we can give STEM an image overhaul, more individuals will realize they really are science and math people.”

To learn more about how the TRC is training and supporting a new generation of computer science teachers, visit the TRC’s Computer Science Resources website or contact Carol Fletcher at carol.fletcher@austin.utexas.edu.

When UT Austin’s College of Education and College of Natural Sciences created the teacher preparation program UTeach, they never dreamed that the President of the United States would be applauding it as one of the best ways to help students excel in math and science.

Since its launch in 1997, the award-winning UTeach program has graduated 878 of the brightest secondary science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) teachers, enjoyed commendations for its successful public-private partnerships, and been adopted at 39 universities nationwide (with five more slated to begin replication before the end of the year).

“One major strength of UTeach is that we make sure our students have an exceptionally strong grasp of the content they’ll be teaching,” said Larry Abraham, UTeach co-director and professor in the College of Education’s Department of Kinesiology and Health Education. “Our students are required to actually earn a degree in the subject they’ll be teaching, whether it’s math, science, or engineering. They’re sitting in the same classes, mastering the same challenging material as students who will become biomedical engineers, physicians, or chief technology officers.”

When UTeach students graduate, Abraham said, they’re fully prepared to take on a variety of challenging careers, from medicine to NASA research, or to pursue graduate school.

Despite a wealth of choices, about 90 percent of UTeach students elect to enter teaching, and five years after entering the field, 80 percent of UTeach graduates are still teaching.

In addition to being seriously well prepared in STEM content areas, UTeach students complete a carefully designed sequence of classroom experiences that immerse them in “real life” teaching. Before they enter a classroom, clinical faculty with years of teaching experience help prepare the students for their in-school field experiences. While in the classroom, they’re able to work closely with seasoned mentor teachers who model best pedagogical practices.

“What makes UTeach different, and in a good way, is that we place students in secondary school classrooms from the very first course they take and give them a chance to teach lessons from the outset,” said Abraham. “Their first two semesters of the program are funded through scholarships, in fact, and are meant to let them see, at no cost to them, if the career is a good fit. If it’s not, they simply leave UTeach and continue to work on their degree.”

Although UTeach instructors don’t require students to adopt a particular teaching strategy, they give them ample opportunities to observe and practice an approach called project-/inquiry-based instruction.

With inquiry-based learning, students are given a problem to solve and, in order to do that they must discover and incorporate any number of key math and science concepts like speed, aerodynamics, fractions, or trajectory. They are freed to pursue answers through independent research, discussion, and hands-on activities.

Another motivator for students is that the problem is placed in a narrative context or scenario that’s likely to be relevant and naturally interesting to them, so the learning feels less like work and more like an adventure.

This method of instruction is demonstrated to UTeach students by some of the best area middle and high school STEM teachers, as well as UTeach professors.

“UTeach was one of the first programs of its kind in the nation to have a course specifically designed around project-based learning,” said Abraham, “and we were very early adopters when it came to integrating math, science, and technology, rather than using a silo approach that prepares STEM teachers for only one discipline.”

To foster that integration, UTeach math and science students take the same teacher preparation courses. Everyone learns physics; everyone learns biology; and everyone learns algebra.

“Just think about it, in middle and high school science classes, a lot of the problems that students run into have to do with math,” said Abraham. “Sometimes they’re just not up to speed. If the science teacher has studied how people learn math, though, he or she can spot when a child is having a problem and more effectively provide support.

“With math teachers, if they learn about teaching several different areas of science, their teaching becomes richer because they have an endless supply of real-world problems and scenarios to use in their lessons. This can help students understand bigger math concepts and grasp that learning is about more than one right answer.”

Having UTeach students work in multi-disciplinary teams has seeded an interest in them to interact across disciplines once they become teachers.

In addition to engaging excellent instructors, one of the most significant benefits of the UTeach program is that it’s streamlined and efficient. Despite adding UTeach coursework to their regular STEM degree requirements, students’ degree completion time is not extended. It’s also appealing because, in addition to welcoming undergraduates, UTeach admits qualified professionals with existing degrees who are returning to school. They can take the UTeach coursework and, if they pass, become certified as STEM teachers in around three semesters.

Since it began, UTeach has expanded its resources and services to include professional development for graduates, an elementary teacher preparation program called Hands-On Science, a national alumni network, scholarships and internships, and a community outreach program.

The program itself has been replicated by UT Austin’s College of Liberal Arts, and the College of Education recently formed UTeach Urban Teachers, which is the newest UTeach option. It’s specifically designed for educators passionate about social justice in diverse urban classrooms.

“Our students leave UTeach with a rock-solid degree and many options,” said Abraham. “Fortunately, most of them choose to teach, to do something that makes them feel good and has meaning. You hear a lot about ‘transformational programs’ – some are and some aren’t. UTeach has turned out to be one that truly is.”

-Photos by Mark Tway

Over the past couple of decades, UT Austin’s College of Education has become a national leader in preparing STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers who can motivate and ignite learning in a wide array of students, including groups that traditionally have avoided or done poorly in STEM courses.

One of the most successful efforts has been STEM education expert Anthony Petrosino’s Beyond Blackboards project, which he developed in partnership with Rich Crawford in UT’s Cockrell School of Engineering and Chandra Muller in the College of Liberal Arts.

Students participate in robotics competitions.

Students participate in robotics competitions.

To boost middle school students’ understanding of all sorts of complex math and science concepts, the National Science Foundation-funded project focuses on something that appeals to a lot of kids: putting together robotic contraptions that look like really cool toys and then seeing if those contraptions work.

A considerable body of research shows that when students are given a chance to be active participants in their learning, do hands-on projects, solve problems on their own or in a group, and work on activities that are clearly tied to real life and seem relevant, they learn more.

Another perk to this teaching approach, which is called project-based or inquiry-based instruction, is that it has been particularly effective with student populations that traditionally have struggled academically, especially in math and science courses.

“Right now, the national dropout rate for Hispanics stands at around 40 percent,” said Petrosino, an associate professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and co-founder of the nationally acclaimed UTeach program. “Many of these students may not perform well on tests, but they have skill sets that allow them to do well in engineering design. The confidence and expertise they gain while they engage in something like engineering design can be a really effective starting point for understanding core math and science subject material.”

According to Petrosino, inquiry-based projects tend to tap into students’ natural motivation and facilitate mastery of advanced scientific concepts like rules of evidence, investigation, and prediction.

“We’re using engineering-based design and robotics competitions and projects to create a context for math and science learning,” said Petrosino. “The high-level skills these projects are building can prepare students for jobs as engineers, certainly, but those same skills can also open the door to a career in medicine, software design, or architecture.”

Students participate in robotics competitions.

Students participate in robotics competitions.

To encourage more students to pursue STEM college majors and career fields, Beyond Blackboards takes a four-pronged approach that includes research-based materials and training for all major stakeholders: students, teachers, school administrators, and parents.

During after-school programs, such as robotics clubs, and at intensive summer camps, students spend lots of time on inquiry-based, open-ended, hands-on learning activities. At the same time, they’re introduced to a wide selection of STEM college options and careers.

Teachers participate in professional development that boosts their engineering knowledge and the level of comfort they have using technology in their classrooms. They’re also taught how to introduce students to engineering, which can include pointing out basic, everyday examples of engineering in real life. This helps students take the topic from the realm of abstract concepts into familiar contexts.

Beyond Blackboards builds support from school counselors and administrators by providing professional development and field trips to local businesses and organizations that offer many kinds of jobs in STEM fields. Teachers outside math and science – career instructors and art teachers, for example – have access to this training as well.

The program also reaches out to parents and caregivers, targeting historically under-represented groups, like African Americans and Hispanics, in order to build understanding about the career options open to students who have math and science skills.

At UT Austin, Beyond Blackboards engages engineering and UTeach students to serve as mentors for middle school students in the program, offering academic support and helping students look ahead to college and beyond.

“Support from multiple sources increases the likelihood of success,” said Petrosino. “University partners like DTEACH are very involved, as well as corporate partners like Skillpoint Alliance, a Central Texas education and workforce agency, and members of communities around the participating schools.

“Research shows that middle school is a critical decision-making time for students, and Beyond Blackboards focuses on engaging people who are in a position to positively influence those students. Really focusing on historically underserved populations, we’re tapping into a large group with a wealth of talent that may previously have gone unnoticed.”

Like robotics, science video games are an innovative, research-proven way to pique middle school students’ interest in science – one that learning technologies expert Min Liu has perfected in the guise of “Alien Rescue.”

It’s hard to deny the power of a good space adventure video game to motivate middle-schoolers,” said Liu, a professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “What 10- or 11-year old wouldn’t get into traveling through outer space and rescuing aliens?”

Created for sixth grade science students by Liu and her Learning Technologies Program graduate students, the video game “Alien Rescue” places tweens in the role of space scientist.

Children learn to use the scientific procedures that real scientists use, ask the tough questions scientists ask, and research answers to those questions.

As with any good inquiry-based lesson, Alien Rescue is story-driven and tasks students with finding suitable homes in the solar system for six alien species who have lost their home planets and are broadcasting a desperate plea for help to Earth. Each species has very different habitat requirements; if those requirements aren’t met, each student group’s alien will perish.

Watch teachers, students and developers talk about Alien Rescue benefits in the classroom.

The 3D online immersive learning environment combines the fantasy element of aliens with the realism of being a young investigator, which research has shown to be a great match for middle school students. Through a discovery approach, the students learn from their mistakes as they play the game, self-correct their errors, and are supported by various tools that are built into the program.

“Alien Rescue is an excellent example of inquiry-based learning,” Liu said, “and the game has been very successful as a teaching and learning tool for all groups, from gifted and talented to at-risk students. According to teachers, students are highly motivated to participate and quickly get into the role of space scientist.”

Since the game feels more like play than schoolwork, it may seed positive attitudes about science that remain through high school and college.

Alien Rescue has become so popular that it’s now part of the science curriculum in 30 states as well as Australia, China, Canada, and South Korea. In the past year alone, Liu has received requests from 23 more schools in 10 states and Canada, Cyprus, and New Zealand to implement the program. In the Austin area, it’s part of the school science curriculum in Round Rock, Leander, and Killeen.

Even though the addictive game is intended for sixth-graders (it’s aligned with the sixth grade Texas Essential Knowledge and Skills test), teachers in fifth through ninth grade classrooms have used it and proven that, with modifications, it’s an equally superb tool for a broader audience.

Students use the Alien Rescue video game in school.

Students use the Alien Rescue video game in school.

That broader audience includes the dozens of graduate students over the past 10 years who have refined and improved the game – adding new features, incorporating new technologies, fleshing out the characters, and updating the science content.

“When I agreed to develop this game, I never anticipated it would entice so many top-notch students, ones who jump at the chance to use it as a learning tool and research platform,” said Liu. “Alien Rescue meets their needs, whether they’re wanting to develop technical, design, or research talents. Our team has included grad students from backgrounds as diverse as learning technology, video production, teaching, astronomy, content development, and computer science.”

As part of the project, Liu’s graduate students have had opportunities to present papers about Alien Rescue at major learning technology and education research conferences. In addition to several other honors, the game has won the Interactive Learning Award from the National Association for Educational Communications and Technology, while those who’ve worked on the game have been honored with an Outstanding Research Paper Award from the World Conference on Educational Media and Technology.

“The thing that makes this project so special,” said Jina Kang, a doctoral student on Liu’s team, “is that every new group of graduate students brings new talents to the table and the game improves every single year. It’s never static. This is one major reason we’re getting so much positive attention.

“For example, right now we’re building a dashboard that teachers can use to follow, in real time, what students are doing in the game. And we’re working to integrate more math content into the program so math teachers can use it in their classes. We gained three new graduate students who have been middle school math teachers, so we’re able to develop multimedia-based math concepts and make Alien Rescue interdisciplinary. It’s all kind of amazing.”

Like robotics, high quality educational video games are igniting learning in students who never thought they could master complex math and science material.

“Over the past several decades science has shown us so much more about how the brain works, especially young, developing brains,” said Petrosino. “We know more about how children learn. Using this new information, we’re coming up with fresh ways of increasing students’ knowledge.”

-Video by Mengwen Cao from the Alien Rescue team

Here’s a description of a classroom where a wealth of learning occurs.

Students choose small groups and the teacher asks them to plan a vacation. They can go anywhere.

The first group decides on Washington, D.C. After they do some online research they mark on a map the sites they hope to visit while they’re there. The teacher suggests one student check to see what the average March temperature is for D.C. so they’ll know if they need to dress for snow or sunshine. The teacher also talks to them a bit about what “average” means.

Someone else in the group points out that Virginia is very near the Capital and wants to know if they can drive to Virginia and see some historical sites while they’re so nearby. The teacher tells them to do a little online research and determine if they can fit that into their four days in D.C., given the full schedule they’ve already developed.

She also gives the group one iPad and asks them to find two people who already have been to D.C. They must develop five questions to ask these travelers about the destination and use the iPad to videotape the responses.

The first-graders fire up the iPad and get to work on finding the driving distance between D.C. and Williamsburg.

That’s right, first-graders.

Decades of research show that project-based learning – an approach that encourages students to create, design and implement project ideas that interest them – promotes deeper learning of academic content, boosts problem-solving skills and increases students’ motivation to learn.

It’s only recently, though, that scholars and teachers have embraced the approach for the youngest students.

“Before children enter school their lives are about exploration and learning – they’re going through an extremely rich, rapid phase of development and then, all of a sudden, that can be shut down when they get in the classroom,” said Dr. Jennifer Keys Adair, a College of Education assistant professor in the Department of Curriculum and Instruction and an early childhood education expert.

“Children are made up of a plethora of capabilities, and in the early years they’re developing very quickly in several different domains. When you have children this young sit still at a desk and listen, for 45 minutes at a time, about one way of doing something, you’re only addressing a miniscule area of their capabilities. And you’re shutting down their natural curiosity and drive to figure things out.”

According to Adair project-based learning gets to more of those capabilities quicker, more deeply and more effectively, and children retain the content longer.

Research also shows that children taught with project-based instruction reach academic benchmarks and tend to perform on standardized tests as well as or better than traditionally taught peers.

“Standardized scores are not the reason to embrace project-based learning, however,” said Adair. “The reason is to develop children who become adults who have a wide array of capabilities. They’ll be able to become scientists, problem-solvers and thinkers who can tackle the issues facing their families and communities.”

“Adults may worry that if students are given freedom, they’ll just mess around or waste time, but the project-based learning approach, under the direction of a well-trained teacher, improves everything from confidence and initiative to math and reading abilities – even in the youngest children.” – Dr. Jennifer Adair

In a class where project-based instruction happens, activities start with an inquiry, with children pondering and then formulating questions that puzzle or interest them. The teacher acts as a facilitator and guide in their exploration.

Students, even as early as pre-kindergarten, are motivated to search through books, conduct online research, interview fellow students, consult experts and do experiments to answer questions that excite them.

“The students don’t just choose a topic to pursue but they also get to choose the way they want to learn more it ” said Adair, who has spent over 10 years in classrooms with varying levels of what she calls “school-based agency,” or the ability to influence how and what you learn in a classroom. “They’re given the opportunity to fail and then pick right up again and keep exploring. The teacher gives them direction and pushes them to keep moving when they stall, but it’s amazing what children are able to figure out on their own and through discussion with their peers.”

Adair noted that project-based learning also has been successful at narrowing the achievement gap and promoting learning in traditionally low-achieving student populations.

“Adults may worry that if students are given freedom, they’ll just mess around or waste time,” said Adair. “But the project-based learning approach, under the direction of a well-trained teacher, improves everything from confidence and initiative to math and reading abilities – even in the youngest children. Young children are capable of so much more than we give them credit for.”

Photo by: Christina S. Murrey


  • Dr. Jennifer Adair examines how much autonomy young children can manage in the classroom.
  • Traditional instruction limits the amount children learn.
  • Project-based teaching yields deeper learning, better problem-solving skills, increased student motivation.
  • Low-achieving student populations benefit from project-based instruction.

Originally published in March 2011

Let’s say you have to teach a dozen college freshmen how to whip up a batch of chocolate éclairs, and the extent of their culinary experience up to now has been stirring Honey Nut Cheerios into lowfat yogurt.

You can stand in front of the group and tell them how to do it while they sit at their desks and copy it down. Then you can give them a multiple choice test to see if they remember the recipe.
George Veletsianos

Adventure Learning

Veletsianos was introduced to adventure learning when he worked with Dr. Aaron Doering, the architect of adventure learning, on a GoNorth! Arctic expedition. GoNorth! links up explorers, teachers and students from around the world to answer a ‘big’ science-related question such as “Why are the world’s oceans important to us all?”.

Or you can provide computers with Internet access and have them search for éclair recipes, choosing one that seems promising based on cooking principles they’ve learned from a cooking science scholar who spoke to the group. They also could use the computer to watch Parisian pastry chefs demonstrate classic cooking techniques and ask the experts questions during the demonstration.

Then the students could go select the cooking ingredients and try their hand at preparing the dish while they receive instant feedback, via the Internet and a webcam, from chefs who’ve successfully made the dessert.  After making the dish, the budding chefs could blog about their experiences and communicate online with cooking school students around the country, sharing some of the éclair recipes that were successful, as well as tips on how to tweak and improve the recipes that more or less went down in flames.

Notice how, with that second approach, the students are likely to learn more than just the recipe and the teacher doesn’t put a cap on what they learn? That’s actually a good thing.

According to University of Texas at Austin Professor George Veletsianos and other top education scholars, the most meaningful learning occurs when students become an active part of the whole process and become investigators and explorers, collecting data and searching for answers and solutions. In a class where this is happening, the instructor designs learning environments that are supported and amplified by technology. There aren’t restrictions on how much can be learned and the teacher’s more of a very skilled guide and supporter than disseminator of bite-sized, pre-packaged factoids.
Aaron Doering sits in a tent working on his laptop during a GoNorth! Arctic expedition

Adventure Learning

Dr. George Veletsianos

“I’m very interested in how to use emerging technologies and pedagogies to design engaging and powerful online learning experiences,” said Veletsianos, who’s an assistant professor in the College of Education‘s Department of Curriculum and Instruction. “We know that technology’s often used in familiar ways in education, in ways that support the status quo.

“But in my work, I try to break away from that mold and rethink the role of technology, role of the teacher and role of the student. The teacher becomes someone who orchestrates rich, exciting, challenging learning situations and is adept at tapping the potential of online networks and contemporary technology. The student generates valuable knowledge and participates in worthwhile activities. And technology transforms and extends the work that these individuals do.”

Back in 2004, when Veletsianos was a graduate student at the University of Minnesota, he had the good fortune to be introduced to a new educational approach called “adventure learning,” which is one approach to inquiry-based, hands-on, technology-supported education. It’s the kind of learning that teaches students how to think rather than simply how to recite, report and recall. Veletsianos was able to work closely with the pioneer of adventure learning and has over the last decade become a well-known national expert on the topic himself.

“I had a really dramatic first experience with adventure learning,” said Veletsianos. “I was able to join Dr. Aaron Doering, an architect of adventure learning, and a program called GoNorth! to research online learning environments that are based on and built around Arctic expeditions. These expeditions are followed, via technology, by students and teachers around the world.

Screen grab from George Veletsianos’ blog

Adventure Learning

To demonstrate the ease with which adventure learning can be implemented as well as some of the technology resources that can be used, Veletsianos turned his blog post about biking around Austin on a Saturday into an adventure learning experience.

“It’s not that there weren’t any teachers offering active learning experiences or instructors using technology in creative ways before the dawn of adventure learning, but adventure learning represents the first time the process was formalized and informed, down to the last detail, by scrupulous research. Adventure learning requires a well-researched, inquiry-based curriculum, collaboration between all of the participants, media and materials that students receive regularly and at frequent intervals from scientists and researchers in the field, and specific pedagogical guidelines.”

In the case of GoNorth!, which has arranged annual educational expeditions to remote Arctic locations since 2004, the learning takes place around a few central “big” questions that relate to the travel destination. For example, a few years ago, scientists, teachers and students set out to answer the question, “What is climate change?” through a GoNorth! adventure.

Teachers, students and experts around the world collected data from their own regions and used authentic, real-time reports from the explorers, as well as the adventure learning curriculum and resources, to learn natural and social sciences. The participants were able to share their findings with one another in online photo albums, webcasts, blogs, movies and interactive maps. One team from the circumpolar Arctic even paddled along the shores of British Columbia and Washington State, reporting daily in journals and with audio and video on the sights and sounds that they encountered as they investigated climate change.

“This sort of large-scale version of adventure learning typically includes exploration and inquiry by an expedition team to some remote location -– Alaska, Australia, wherever –- and the experts share their findings as they happen,” said Veletsianos. “Along with the students, they predict and investigate outcomes.

“Teachers interested in using adventure learning will want to have the option of doing it in a more modest way and implementing it with more ease and frequency, so I’ve begun to study how it can be scaled down and still deliver the same benefits. In the fall of 2010 I and a small group of instructional technology graduate students teamed up with a large, introductory sociology class -– the Study of Society — here on campus to see if the adventure learning approach could help the students experience what it’s like to be a sociologist.”

Veletsianos and instructional technology graduate students Gregory Russell, Cesar Chavez Navarrete and Janice Rios ventured out into Austin to ask the man -– and woman –- on the street, “What’s the role of the teacher?” and collect anecdotes from interviewees about some of their most memorable teachers. Veletsianos named the project “YoTeach.Us,” and he and his team designed and developed a set of online environments where YoTeach.Us data were gathered and posted over three weeks. The sociology students watched and commented on the interview responses, while also collaborating on related tasks assigned to them.

Adventure Learning“The goal was to give the sociology students an accurate approximation of authentic sociology field research,” said Navarrete. “In addition to gathering interviews in Austin, we also solicited responses from instructors around the country. We received a substantial number of audio and video submissions, ending up mainly with YouTube interviews -– and we’re still taking responses. The result was an impressive collection of sociological perspectives gathered around one ‘big question’ that a real sociologist might actually address, and this body of data will likely continue to grow.”

Even though online education tends to be associated with passive instruction, our work and research show how you can capitalize on the power of creative pedagogies and social-oriented technologies to design incredible, lively learning opportunities, whether these are for kindergarten through high school classes or for higher education. George Veletsianos

Next, the sociology students broke up into teams to launch independent explorations of a sociological issue of their choice. They conducted interviews, analyzed print and digital media, created video recordings, researched, blogged and produced digital analyses of their research.

Navarrete, Russell and graduate student Anita Harvin assisted the sociology students by developing and sharing a set of tutorials for online technologies like Bubblr, GoAnimate, Pixton, StoryBird, VoiceThread and BlogSpot. They also worked directly with each team to help the amateur sociologists figure out how best to integrate the technology.

Veletsianos hopes to build a substantial online portfolio of adventure learning projects, similar to YoTeach.Us, that any kindergarten through 12th grade or university instructor can access, use or replicate. Also, university instructors will be able to use the YoTeach.Us videos to lead their pre-service teachers in a study of instructors’ roles in the classroom.

“Even though online education tends to be associated with passive instruction,” said Veletsianos, “our work and research show how you can capitalize on the power of creative pedagogies and social-oriented technologies to design incredible, lively learning opportunities, whether these are for kindergarten through high school classes or for higher education.”

Students tend to share Veletsianos’ enthusiasm for interactive technology and for adventure learning, using words and phrases like “real-life,” “meaningful” and “engrossing” to describe adventure learning. The word “fun” crops up an awful lot, too.

“I hope adventure learning eventually just becomes synonymous with ‘good teaching’ and that at some point it’s what everyone is doing,” said Dee Davis, a middle school science teacher. “It’s not unimportant that our students remember the War of 1812 was in 1812 and can repeat a two-sentence definition of photosynthesis, but, honestly, if I were looking to hire an engineer, computer scientist, teacher, marketing consultant –- whatever –- I’d want the adventure learner. I’d want somebody who’d learned how to think, solve problems and create things that didn’t exist before.”

Photo of George Veletsianos: Marsha Miller

Originally published in October 2011

Working with The University of Texas at Austin’s Cockrell School of Engineering, area school districts, and members of the education industry, the College of Education is helping implement Beyond Blackboards, a program that introduces middle school students to engineering design.

Robo Maniacs

“An art student, for example, who shows design promise would never know that there was a niche for her in engineering and most teachers would not know that this talented student could flourish in an engineering class.” – Dr. Anthony Petrosino

Beyond Blackboards is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) is based on the highly successful Design Technology and Engineering for America’s Children (DTEACh) engineering outreach program. DTEACh and Beyond Blackboards emphasize hands-on experience with technology and the use of design challenges and robotics to create a context for math and science learning.

“Most students don’t have an entirely accurate perception of what it means to be an engineer and what engineering involves,” said Dr. Anthony Petrosino, associate professor in the College of Education’s Department of Curriculum and Instruction and co-principal investigator for the NSF grant. “Most adults don’t either, for that matter. One of the strengths of Beyond Blackboards is that it’s designed to educate not only the middle school students, but also teachers, school administrators and parents, or other caregivers, regarding the breadth of education and career opportunities available to someone who’s developed strong math and science skills. Most people are surprised – they possess a rather narrow definition of ‘engineer.’”

Realizing that not all students will, or should, become engineers, Beyond Blackboards focuses on using engineering-based challenges and projects to build students’ skills in analysis, problem-solving, negotiation, creativity, tolerance for ambiguity and understanding of systems thinking. Any or all of these skills can help students successfully pursue university degrees and lucrative career paths in any number of fields.

Ojeda Gators

The Ojeda Middle School “Engin Ears” robotics team participating in a Beyond Blackboards robotics competition. According to Dr. Anthony Petrosino, middle school is a critical decision-making time for students and Beyond Blackboards focuses on supporting and educating those individuals who are in a position to positively influence students when it comes to the development of math, science and technology skills.

“Unfortunately, many K-12 engineering programs have been modeled after university engineering programs, which means that students don’t get introduced to the design element of engineering,” said Petrosino. “An art student, for example, who shows design promise would never know that there was a niche for her in engineering and most teachers would not know that this talented student could flourish in an engineering class.”

Historically underserved student populations are particularly at risk for falling through the cracks, with the dropout rate for Hispanics currently standing at around 40 percent. Many of these students may not perform well on tests but can possess skill sets that allow them to do well in engineering design. The confidence and expertise gained in engineering design can be a launching point for understanding core math and science subject material.

To encourage more students to enter science, math, engineering and technology (STEM) fields, Beyond Blackboards is taking a four-pronged approach that includes research-based materials and training for students, teachers, school administrators and parents.

Students are engaged in inquiry-based, open-ended, hands-on learning activities and introduced to a varied selection of STEM college options and careers during after-school programs, such as robotics clubs, as well as in intensive summer camps.

Teachers are trained to lead out-of-school robotics programs, receiving engineering professional development that increases their content knowledge and the level of comfort with which they employ technology in their classrooms.

Teachers are educated in how to introduce students to engineering, using techniques such as drawing students’ attention to everyday examples of engineering topics, thereby placing abstract engineering concepts into familiar contexts. The teachers also learn how to generate interactive discussions about science and math concepts underlying engineering subject areas; set up exploratory labs for the students; present open-ended design problems in class; and help students become adept at communicating technical information, such as their engineering design solutions.


“Really focusing on historically underserved groups, we’re tapping into a large, promising future workforce – this is a great opportunity to increase the number of individuals who have STEM skills.” – Dr. Anthony Petrosino

Beyond Blackboards builds support from school counselors and administrators by offering them professional development that include education on STEM career opportunities and field trips to area businesses and organizations that offer a broad array of jobs in STEM fields. The education professionals also can avail themselves of presentations, discussions and hands-on activities that explain and illustrate students’ learning experiences. Teachers outside math and science – career instructors and art teachers, for example – have access to this training as well.

And finally, the program also reaches out to parents and caregivers, targeting historically under-represented groups in order to build understanding about the options open to students who have math and science skills. Among other things, Beyond Blackboards shares STEM college and career awareness activities with parents of children who are in the robotics after-school clubs or summer camps.

At The University of Texas at Austin, Beyond Blackboards engages engineering and UTeach students to serve as mentors for middle school students in the program.

“Support from multiple sources increases the likelihood of success,” said Petrosino. “Corporate partners like DTEACh are very involved as well as Skillpoint Alliance, a Central Texas education and workforce agency, and members of communities around the participating schools.

“Research points to the fact that middle school is a critical decision-making time for students and Beyond Blackboards focuses on those individuals who are in a position to positively influence students. Really focusing on historically underserved groups, we’re tapping into a large, promising future workforce – this is a great opportunity to increase the number of individuals who have STEM skills.”