Science Gets Schooled: The Future of Education at OCE Discovery 2018
Emily Pollock posted on May 09, 2018 |
Modgarden's Tinyfarm is one of the many tech tools at OCE Discovery 2018 that is finding a home in the classroom. (Image courtesy of Emily Pollock.)
Modgarden's Tinyfarm is one of the many tech tools at OCE Discovery 2018 that is finding a home in the classroom. (Image courtesy of Emily Pollock.)

Early on in her Q&A session at the opening keynote of OCE Discovery 2018, Sophia the Robot stumbled over a question about education. When one conference-goer asked her what role she thought AI might play in the future of education, she replied, "I believe children are our future"—obviously going off a script rather than responding organically to the question.

While Sophia's programming might have stumbled over the complex question about education, the rest of the conference did not. Second keynote speaker Megan Smith, former U.S. chief technology officer and founder and CEO of shift7, championed the combination of education and technology. Smith also advocated for a more hands-on approach to traditional science education, one where students are given the opportunity to solve scientific problems for themselves instead of just reading about how others solved such problems in the past. Smith compared her ideal science classroom to a gym class: "You don't sit down and talk about hockey—you play it."

And there were many on the conference floor already playing Smith's game. Canadian educational institutions showcased the tech they've used and built in nontraditional educational spaces. Sheridan's Centre for Advanced Manufacturing and Design Technologies, a self-described "technology playground for students, manufacturers and industry partners," displayed its YuMi robot, which is designed for small parts assembly and can work safely alongside humans. Humber College showed off its Pictionary-playing robot, which is capable of not only winning games against humans but also of being gracious when it loses. While more traditional book-reading and note-taking education is still the norm in most programs, applied technological classes are giving students the opportunity to learn about the world of science and technology firsthand.

"Teachers like educational technologies in general, in my opinion," said Jane Ji, creator of iBiome. A game that teaches students about marine biology, allowing them to build and maintain their own ecosystems. "You can feel the size of this market." Ji and iBiome are part of the educational technology sector called "game-based learning," which uses educational games to teach content in a fun and immersive way. And these games don't belong to the fantasies of tomorrow but the classrooms of today. Project Tomorrow's 2013 report on gaming-based learning, which surveyed more than 3 million students, educators and parents, found that 66 percent of elementary school teachers and 39 percent of middle school teachers used games or websites in their classrooms.

iBiome is designed to teach kids about marine ecosystems, and the small things that they can do to help preserve them. (Image courtesy of Emily Pollock.)
iBiome is designed to teach kids about marine ecosystems, and the small things that they can do to help preserve them. (Image courtesy of Emily Pollock.)

The tech on the floor wasn't just about making education more fun; much of it was explicitly aimed at making education more accessible. Companies like Orange Neurosciences, whose ReadON software as a service (SaaS) platform helps people with reading difficulties, and Motify, an app that helps university students on the autism spectrum succeed and organize their lives, want to make sure the future of education is bright for students with disabilities. "We’re finally now starting to look at mental illnesses and cognitive challenges as having legitimate issues that need solutions," said Jessica Jay of Motify. "Looking around OCE this week, I was consistently impressed with all the different tech that was emerging to help address some of these issues. I think tech is going great places, and I really think in the next 20 years, accessible education is going to take off and become the new normal."

Many of the speakers and exhibitors at the conference pushed for substantial change in the world of education that would help better prepare students to solve the problems of the world. During her keynote, Smith floated the idea of a classroom structured around solving a world problem a year, where students would learn about chemistry while researching water purifiers and gain communication skills writing reports on climate change or world hunger. "We don't need to separate subjects just because we ring a bell between them; the universe doesn't," she said. Ultimately, many attendees had the same hope as Ji, the iBome’s creator: that tech-enhanced education will help students to "learn and understand their social responsibilities for a better and more sustainable world."

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