Math and Science: Out of the Classroom, Into the World

Ken-ichi Ueda and Scott Loarie demonstrated the new iNaturalist iPhone app at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve

It’s great to be a student these days. The opportunities to learn math, science, technology and engineering have come such a long way from the days of sitting through interminable hours of watching teachers solve equations and explain complicated theories on the chalkboard.

Witnessing how technology has redefined learning makes me wish I could start school all over again. Covering the subject of education innovation and the future of learning for MindShift, I’m excited to see that the old model is changing. With access to a computer or mobile device, apps and websites, students can have a completely different learning experience – one that resonates within the digital world they live.


The stereotypical image of a scientist is that of one who works long, solitary hours in a sealed lab sequestered from others. But most science research in the real world happens with lots of collaboration between researchers from across the globe. And the same scenario is happening in schools, too.

In schools like Napa New Tech High in Napa, Calif., students work in groups on projects for every subject they study. At Covington Elementary School in Los Altos, Calif., students help each other figure out math problems they’re learning on the Khan Academy website. And when they’re stuck with a problem, their teacher Richard Julian steps in -- he doesn’t solve it for them, but helps them figure out how to solve it themselves.


Scientists are also collaborating with students, asking eager, young learners to help them gather data and conduct research. So when ornithologists at Cornell University study breeding and nesting behavior, when NASA researchers need an extra few thousand pairs of eyes on a telescope, and when biologists and gardeners investigate changes in ladybug populations, they ask K-12 students to participate in the research — often as part of their regular class curriculum.

Students are also working with each other and scientists across the globe on their own science projects, as with Tanya Katovich’s class in Palatine, Illinois. Katovich’s students connected to a radioactivity lab clear across the globe — a Geiger counter in Australia — to find out whether their cell phones are frying their brains. Now that’s worth learning!


Studying a subject just for the sake of knowing it is no longer a viable reason to learn. Educators are realizing that connecting curriculum to what’s important to students in their daily lives, as well as to what’s meaningful in the real world, will motivate students to want to learn more.

That was the case with Tanya Katovich’s class, whose students were invested in learning the outcomes of whether sleeping with their cell phones under their pillows was harming them. Similarly, challenged with the task of finding engaging ways to measure asthmatic kids’ oxygen levels, a group of students at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup contest created a mobile game that makes those annoying breathing tests more fun. The game connects the mobile phone to a spirometer, which controls Azmo, a fire-breathing dragon whose fiery breath destroys villages and castles.

Another student at the Imagine Cup created a tool designed to help visually impaired students with taking notes in class.

With access to real data and real tools available online, students are able to draw their own conclusions and create their own problem-solving devices, giving them a glimpse into the world outside the confines of school, and making them responsible, contributing citizens of the world. Today, anyone can be an engineer.


There will come a day when textbooks will no longer be the predominant source of learning in schools. That time is not as far off as you might think.

And it’s not just a matter of digitizing textbooks, though that’s the very first baby-step. Subjects like math, science and engineering are becoming untethered from print books and gaining new life in apps, games and websites.

Citizen science apps like Project NoahiNaturalist and The WildLab are just a few mobile phone apps that encourage learners to gather scientific data in their surrounding environment and submit it to sites that use the information for everything from geo-tagging bird species to logging plants and animals.

Not to mention sites that teach students how to program and build robotsmotion-sensor apps that teach fractions, and apps that chart the stars for astronomy buffs.

With tools like Sketchup, students can design and create anything in their imagination. With sites like Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope and Google Earth, they can virtually explore every part of the world from their own classrooms or bedrooms.

These examples just barely scratch the surface of the types of innovations that are happening in STEM education. As technology becomes more sophisticated, so will the young minds that harness it.

This post was originally written for NBC's Education Nation blog called The Learning Curve.