But the future is here: Using scenarios to teach STEM in schools

I have been thinking about scenarios as a way to teach integrated STEM in school education. The idea is not necessarily new although in the STEM + HPC research I have conducted in NSW primary schools for the past few years it is not a common pedagogical approach.

In a study in US  primary schools that used scenarios in an e-learning context Proudfoot & Kebritchi (2017) found that scenario experiences: “can improve student attitudes, interests, and achievement related to STEM as well as improve interests in STEM-related careers. Further, engaging and positive STEM learning experiences have the potential to improve student attitudes, interests, and achievement towards STEM throughout the instructional day rather than only in STEM classes” (online, np). Although the numbers of teachers who gathered data for the initial study were relatively small the research team is keen to repeat the study with larger numbers of teachers and students. Worth looking at the paper in the link.

When I was in the UK last month I went to a stimulating  exhibition at the Victoria & Albert – you are right, it probably is my favourite museum in London.

Running until November 2018 is The Future Starts Here – it’s an exhibition with a STEM or FUTURES focus. It explores the power of design in shaping the world of tomorrow and interrogates ground breaking emerging technologies, the way they will effect our lives in the near future and the collective choices we have to influence their progress. As the program guide states: “the exhibition delves into the fast accelerating future of DNA analysis, AI, synthetic biology and space exploration now emerging from studies and laboratories across the globe” (p.5).

In 1851 there was the first Great Exhibition at the V&A that sought to make sense of the Industrial Revolution – it was held in Crystal Palace in London. It is quite fitting then in The Future Starts Here the latest technologies and products are assembled to make sense of the nascent digital revolution. Most of the objects in the exhibition are either newly released or in development, produced by designers, universities, corporations, governments and collectives. Rory Hyde & Mariana Pestana curators behind the exhibition say: “We can sit back and let it happen or we can take an active role in steering where these things take us” (p.9).

For teachers growing their practice in STEM integration using scenarios to support young people to play around with big ideas are another way to take deeper cross disciplinary approaches to STEM. The following seven scenarios around which the exhibition is built provide plenty of food for thought to push general capabilities in critical thinking and problem solving, for example.

The scenarios presented in the exhibition challenge personal philosophies about what is next. They are:

  1. We are all connected, but are we still lonely?
  2. Will your boss be an algorithm?
  3. What makes us human?
  4. If Mars is the answer, what is the question?
  5. Who wants to live forever?
  6. Does democracy still work?
  7. Could your toaster turn against you?

Four big ideas are reflected in the scenarios that revolve around the scale of technological impact on: the self, the public, the planet and the afterlife.

In thinking about the SELF – the exhibition traverses new fields of design and how design challenges our perception. There are a number of prosthetic devices on show for example that demonstrate how people on a daily basis live their lives with technologies they have ‘hacked’. These devices allow them to carry out everyday tasks like writing or opening tubs of cream. The iPhone is another feature of the idea of SELF and examines the rapid transition into a mobile-first society – do we want to put our devices aside and find ways of breaking our dependence?  It also takes a close look at Jibo – who was the first social robot for the home developed in Boston by Dr Cynthia Breazeal at MIT. What makes Jibo unique is its software foundation which allows it to recognise individual users and understand speech.

The notion of PUBLIC is under threat and this part of the exhibition supports viewers to question the era of post-truth politics, trust in national government and whether in fact democracy still works. It could be that: “with the rise of self-governance systems led by citizens  and the surge of corporate players in elections, transnational politics and city-making open up new horizons for the future of public life” (p.45).

My Aleppo is a story by Mohammed and the Qutaish Family who explain what you do when your world is destroyed in front of your eyes, how do you react, remain hopeful and persevere. Can you rebuild?

Another key idea key in the scenarios is the PLANET. It delves into the ‘anthropocene’  and whether our own species might not survive in the

future and should we once more intervene in the earth’s system in an attempt to repair this damage?

One way to prevent a possible collapse is Jason Essaidi’s Tree Antenna that examines how if we tap into the existing system of a tree, it transforms into a communication system that humans can use. Very interesting.

The Great Green Wall is another example – in fact it’s the largest design project on the planet seeking to address desertification.

In the AFTERLIFE  current advancements in biotechnology and AI have the potential to redefine our conceptions of what life is and interactive exhibits encourage thinking about: reawakening after death or uploading one’s mind onto a computer – these ideas might seem far fetched but are they taken seriously by futurists today.

MinION is one example – it was launched three ago – a portable data sequencer that fits into the palm of your hand – it analyses biological molecules and is perhaps the start of the ‘internet of living things’. DeepMind and cryonics are other examples touched on.

Many of our museums closer to home have presented ideas like those in the V&A exhibition – perhaps scenarios and problem finding based on some of the ideas – great hook questions – presented here might be one way to start the STEM and futures conversation at your school? Let me know.

Note : I wish to acknowledge the exhibition developers, curators and publishers at the V&A – thank you for the opportunity to write about it here.

*AND in 2019: Watch out for the suite of new NESA accredited professional learning in HPC and STEM based on scenarios and futures, AI and data ethics. HPC professional learning is designed to “promote sustained growth in the learner, particularly through collaborative inquiry or collaborative knowledge work where different stakeholders co-problem solve and thus cross the boundaries of different knowledge domains” (p.1) from Allen, J., Singh, P. & Rowen, L. (2018). Editorial: Teacher education for enduring impact. Asia Pacific Journal of Teacher Education, 46(1), 1-5.

*Please feel free to contact me for more details.