A few weeks ago I attended a education conference at Pacific Science Center entitled, "A Conversation that Can Change the World."
It was interesting. Everyone was pretty enthusiastic at the meeting and there was a lot of positive energy.
- We got to see Theresa Britschgi from Seattle Biomedical Research Institute make Jack Faris, President of the Washington Biotechnology and Biomedical Association, get dressed up in a biohazard protection suit.
- We heard from Dennis Schatz about the Pacfic Science Center's outreach programs.
- We had our required moment of technical failure when Ran Hinrichs, of 2b3d, tried a show us a movie about learning in Second Life. (It did finally work).
- We learned from Ray Yan of Digi Pen Institute (a video game college) that video gaming is one of the largest industries in the U.S. and that their student body is 99% male. He stressed the need for better preparation in math and science and emphasized that video gaming also needs people with skills in English and art.
The speakers were great but I really enjoyed watching the looks on the faces of people in the audience when they heard about learning in Second Life and the Washington virtual high school. Wow! It was like they just heard that aliens had landed on Bainbridge island and were commuting by ferry. The worlds of biotechnology and information technology have never seemed so far apart.
Certainly, Mr. Hinrichs (of the Second Life talk) made some very good points. Students who are growing up in a culture of sophisticated software would be not terribly impressed by the talking CDs and virtual fly labs they might see in a science class, if a science class actually used such things. I agree, the virtual science labs that I've seen still haven't caught up to the quality of the Edmark programs that I used to buy for my kids, about a decade ago.
But I don't really think that virtual reality software is the missing piece. To me, virtual reality isn't nearly as important as using computers for a tool for really doing science and math. Activities like collecting and organizing data, graphing, modeling, making data tables, or using Excel spreadsheets to do calculations, or work with NCBI databases impress me. Things like moving a virtual test tube or flies on a screen by controlling your mouse are a big waste of time.
All I could think about during the conference was the big gap between the ideas that I heard and the reality that I know.
I've had children in the Seattle school district for 13 years and I have never seen them use computers or software for science or math. The only exception I know of was a case where I donated CDs that I made to a local high school biotech program so that they could use molecular modeling tools. But other than that one case, it seems that many Seattle teachers view computers as fancy typewriters with a search function.
I agreed with many of the points made by the speakers and I was glad that our new superintendent was there to hear them. But still I wonder, how are kids going to learn how to do science and math with computers if they never do it in school?