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Learning Engineering Practices Through Drones: Iterative design of an informal learning curriculum

Authors:

Abstract

Informal learning programs provide youth with additional opportunities to engage in STEM. Here, we report on an informal engineering program for low-income youth. We describe how a curriculum was modified to reflect the instructional shifts outlined in the Framework for K-12 Science Education and how these changes enhanced youth interests and engagement in engineering practices.
Learning Engineering Practices Through Drones:
Iterative design of an informal learning curriculum
Srinjita Bhaduri, Katie Van Horne, Tamara Sumner
srinjita.bhaduri@colorado.edu, katie.vanhorne@colorado.edu, sumner@colorado.edu
University of Colorado Boulder
Randy Russell, John Ristvey
rrussell@ucar.edu, jristvey@ucar.edu
University Corporation for Atmospheric Research
Abstract: Informal learning programs provide youth with additional opportunities to engage
in STEM. Here, we report on an informal engineering program for low-income youth. We
describe how a curriculum was modified to reflect the instructional shifts outlined in the
Framework for K-12 Science Education and how these changes enhanced youth interests and
engagement in engineering practices.
Introduction
Afterschool programs are an important part of the science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM)
ecosystem, providing youth with opportunities to spark or deepen their interests in STEM, engage in science and
engineering practices, and understand the value of STEM for society and future employment. In formal
educational settings within the United States, science learning in classrooms is undergoing profound changes,
motivated by the Framework for K-12 Science Education (NRC, 2012) and the Next Generation Science
Standards (NGSS Lead States, 2013). There have been numerous studies examining the implementation of new
curricula designed to support the instructional “shifts” described in these documents in formal educational settings
(see, for example, Severance, Penuel, Sumner, & Leary, 2016). However, there have been fewer studies examining
how these shifts influence the design of STEM curricula in informal learning settings. We report on the
development and implementation of an afterschool program designed to engage low income, middle school youth
in engineering experiences in atmospheric and related sciences.
Theory and Prior Work
Supporting the instructional shifts in the Framework and NGSS are central to our approach. The Framework
advocates for using phenomena to drive instruction in science as a means of sustaining student interests and
promoting 3D learning. With this approach, the focus of learning is about figuring out how to explain a
phenomenon not learning about a set of topics. Within science, the goal is to build and refine models to explain
and predict phenomena, based on evidence (Lehrer & Schauble, 2006). Within engineering, the goal is to engage
youth in designing solutions to problems, using evidence of their design’s efficacy to inform and motivate iterative
improvements. A core premise of this approach is that through “figuring out” youth will be guided to engage in
3D learning, where their knowledge of disciplinary core ideas and cross cutting concepts (such as patterns or
cause and effect) is developed through deep engagement with science and engineering practices. Ideally, when
asked what they are doing and why, youth should be able to describe how their learning activities are helping
them to solve their engineering problem. The ability of youth to understand the purpose behind discrete activities
is one way of operationalizing student-centered measures of curriculum coherence. Researchers have proposed
storylines as a promising approach for developing coherent curriculum (Shwartz, Weizman, Fortus, Krajcik, &
Reiser, 2008). A storyline is a way to represent sequence of lessons where each lesson is driven by youth questions
and each activity helps youth to make progress on explaining an anchoring phenomenon.
Context, Methodology, and Analysis
Engineering Experiences is an afterschool engineering curriculum based on Unmanned Aerial Vehicles
(UAV/Drones). Participating youth learn how to fly drones and how to use them as platforms for scientific
investigations. Figure 1 shows the design of iteration three of the curriculum, where we focused on coherence
around a driving question for the semester. This program was studied over the course of three iterations following
a design-based research methodology. The first and second iterations were at a middle school that serves youth in
grades 6 8; 40% of the students at this school are Hispanic while 50% are Caucasian. Almost 45% of the students
qualify for free-and-reduced lunch (FRL). The third iteration took place at a PK-8 School where 84% of the
students are Hispanic, 12% are Caucasian, and 83% qualify for FRL.
Figure 1. Curriculum Design around a Driving Question in Iteration Three
In each iteration, we collected data using journal prompts, project artifacts, observations, and interviews
with youth and adult participants. We used “flight logs” as an unobtrusive journaling notebook for gathering
evidence about youths’ interests, engagement, and knowledge. In survey questions and interviews, we asked youth
to reflect on their interests, performance expectations, relevance of the program to their lives, and their use of
engineering practices. Our session observation protocol focused on observing the degree to which youth were
engaged in different activities and enacted engineering design practices, as well as how the participating adults
supported the youths’ experiences. Analysis was conducted collaboratively by the research team.
Results and Discussion
Our results suggest that using phenomena and design problems to drive instruction can help sustain student
interests. In all three iterations, participating youth reported that their main reason for attending was their interest
in drones 57% of youth noted that the drone content was pretty important in iteration three. However, in earlier
iterations, this interest did not sustain their participation, with attendance declining through the duration. In
iteration three, nearly all youth completed the 14-week program, which was longer in duration and intensity than
the previous iterations. We observed that youth were deeply engaged in the activities for the majority of the
sessions. In earlier iterations, youth would disengage from activities and passively observe. Our observations also
revealed differences in youth engagement with engineering practices. Youth were engaging in more testing of
specific designs, more iterations of their designs, and ultimately creating more sophisticated designs. In earlier
versions, youth were limited in their ability to iterate due to the short durations of each session and interviews
with youth revealed that they were not motivated to iterate as they perceived their designs to be “good enough.
We hypothesize that the curriculum’s new emphasis in version three on engaging in argument from
evidence helped youth to convince themselves that more work was needed to improve their designs. For instance,
during interviews, youth often discussed the need to collect data to justify their decisions or processes. One youth
stated, “I would use some research data and say if I tested it on my own processor or designer city I made on my
own. So, I would show them evidence and anything else that I used to do with the drone [T1]. Thus, building on
the framework helped us to create an in-depth afterschool program that built on student interest while engaging
them in significant science and engineering practices.
References
Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2006). Cultivating Model-Based Reasoning in Science Education. Cambridge
University Press.
National Research Council(NRC) (2012). A framework for K-12 science education: Practices, crosscutting
concepts, and core ideas. National Academies Press.
NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The
National Academies Press.
Severance, S., Penuel, W. R., Sumner, T., & Leary, H. (2016). Organizing for teacher agency in curricular co-
design. Journal of the Learning Sciences, 25(4), 531-564.
Shwartz, Y., Weizman, A., Fortus, D., Krajcik, J., & Reiser, B. (2008). The IQWST experience: Using coherence
as a design principle for a middle school science curriculum. The Elementary School Journal, 109(2),
199-219.
... In Version 2, the developers found that a storyline-based approach [3] (Figure 1) was useful for youth to see how the individual lessons/skills build to address two overarching questions: "How can the UAV be used to determine the damage to a town?" and "How can we deliver aid to this town using UAVs?" We tested this second version again in two cohorts [4]. The first in an evening program comprised of about twelve students who had excellent attendance once a week over the course of the semester and the second cohort (about 100) who attended every day for three weeks in the summer. ...
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Cultivating Model-Based Reasoning in Science Education
  • R Lehrer
  • L Schauble
Lehrer, R., & Schauble, L. (2006). Cultivating Model-Based Reasoning in Science Education. Cambridge University Press.
Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States
NGSS Lead States. (2013). Next Generation Science Standards: For States, By States. Washington, DC: The National Academies Press.