by Jennifer O'Brien

University of Canberra teams with Samsung in ‘novel’ STEM study

Jun 22, 2017
Technology Industry

Technology-enabled teaching methods can improve students’ mathematics skills over a three-week period, equivalent to the level typically achieved in one year.

That’s one of the “astonishing” findings of the joint research project undertaken by the University of Canberra’s (UC) STEM Education Research Centre (SERC) and Samsung Electronics Australia, according to UC centenary professor and director of SERC, Thomas Lowrie, who spearheaded the project.

“What astonished us was that the children’s mathematics performance went up more than 20 per cent over a six hour program. . . Some people would say that is like a year of schooling,” Lowrie told CIO Australia.

UC and Samsung recently teamed up for a three-week STEM study program that examined primary and secondary students. But Lowrie, for his part, has been leading ‘spatial reasoning’ research programs – including a ten-week study – for several years.

“What we have found in the last two years is that if we improve the children’s spatial reasoning skills, even without teaching them mathematics, their mathematics goes up.

“We have been working with classroom teachers, with the programs we’ve developed, and we’ve had incredibly strong performance increases with the children’s mathematics, even when mathematics is not being taught over that intervention period.”

Discussing the latest three-week program, Lowrie urged industry players to take note of the “novel” findings, which will help unlock new opportunities for Australia’s burgeoning STEM skill problem.

“One of the really important things to consider is the extent to which we have to stop worrying about STEM in the separated discipline areas. We shouldn’t be just thinking about science or technology or engineering or mathematics as disciplines on their own.

“Into the future, people will need to be multitasking and will need to have flexible ways of thinking where a whole range of those skills could be used simultaneously, or in fact, with a particular emphasis at different times. The problems are going to become more wicked and challenging, and people need to be able to move from one job, even within the same company, within a five-year period because of the rate of change that tends to happen today,” he said.

“We are very strongly advocating for not worrying about the disciple content, as much as worrying about the actual practices that take place in STEM.”

With that in mind, he said the latest research investigated ‘practical methods’ for increasing mathematics education results in primary students and the development of student-led STEM inquiry projects at high school.

“These spatial skills are really important for STEM learning. In fact, the greatest predictor of a person going into a STEM profession once they leave school is how good their spatial reasoning skills are. The higher their spatial reasoning skills, the more likely they will go into a STEM profession,” he said.

“There is a quiet, strong commitment from governments all over the world, including Australia, to ensure that more people are going into these professions given the changes in our work. And, in fact, one of the biggest pushes is to encourage more girls into STEM,” he said, explaining girls tend to have lower spatial reasoning skills than boys. One of our passions, with many of our projects, is to improve spatial reasoning skills to set them up better for the future.”

Design-process thinking

Lowrie said the research program involved two separate projects developed within the primary and secondary school environment. The primary school component incorporated a teaching and learning program with digital app integration, utilising Samsung technology.

The results pointed to an effect size of 0.5 which means students’ mathematics skills improved to the level typically achieved in one year, in just a few weeks. The intervention group increased their spatial reasoning score by 12 per cent while also recording an improvement in the mathematics test with an increase of 20 per cent, he continued.

Meanwhile, the secondary school component focused on student-led STEM enquiry projects whereby Samsung technology served as a data logger as well as a data analysis and storytelling tool (i.e. video).

Lowrie said the key outcomes saw an increase in design-process thinking and inquiry-based learning among the students; demonstrating good technology can enable significant, real-world STEM investigations.

“This research has allowed us to open the door to opportunities for action-based educational experiences and greater collaboration with educators and the wider STEM industry,” he said.

Education Minister weighs in

Education Minister, Senator Simon Birmingham said the collaboration between Samsung and the University of Canberra highlighted how businesses and researchers could join forces to deliver real potential benefits for Australians. “The Turnbull Government is focused on ensuring all students have the support they need to succeed and we encourage contributions like this one from Samsung and the University of Canberra because they have the potential to give young Australians even more opportunities,” Birmingham said in a statement.

The findings point to opportunities for the continued development of classroom STEM practices; combining practical activities and analytical thinking. Samsung Australia head of corporate social responsibility, Tess Ariotti, said the findings hold significance not only for educators and policymakers, but also for the wider community. “As concern for Australia’s education standards continues to evolve, we’ve joined forces with the University of Canberra to start a conversation with the government and community around implementing tangible change across the national curriculum.”

Looking ahead, Lowrie said he wants to acquire education-related games – rather than purely entertainment-based ones – to be included in the ‘spatial reasoning’ program.

“We know the 10-week program has worked really well – and we know the three-week program has worked – so we have to try to find a sweet spot now. I want to get some traction from industry to start to develop apps. The apps that we took were basically entertainment apps and they weren’t specifically designed under strong pedagogical or theoretical lines.”

“That is the next step. It is thinking about how to get support. That is the link now: we know now our training program works, we know the technology with the training program spikes and helps with improvement more, and I’m very confident that if we can get the right games built for us, then the children’s performance will just take off. That is our holy grail.”