Qualcomm® Thinkabit Lab™ Educators Engage Remote Students With Hands-On STEM Activities in Connected Learning Environment

By Dr. Gloria Bañuelos, Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab Head
Sep 8, 2020 2:00 PM ET
Campaign: STEM Education
Dr. Gloria Bañuelos, Qualcomm Thinkabit Lab Head

August and September are traditionally back-to-school months, but this school year looks vastly different. Without nationwide rules and regulations for schools reopening (or not), there are many unanswered questions. When will virtual class start and end each day? What platforms will be used? What devices and technology are needed for successful teaching and learning? What resources will schools provide? Last-minute decisions and lack of agreement perpetuates frustration and confusion. Yet, in all the discussions around the unknown, one important voice seems to be overlooked: teachers.

In an effort to understand how educators are preparing for an unusual school year, we surveyed teachers from Qualcomm® Thinkabit Lab™, a STEM (science, tech, engineering, mathematics) education initiative spanning 16 sites across the country. The program inspires students of all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds to imagine future careers in STEM, relying heavily on hands-on activities to learn about coding, sensors, circuits, the Internet of Things (IoT) and more. The survey revealed concerns associated with distance learning and access to the resources needed, like a reliable internet connection, computers, and Thinkabit Lab kits. The survey also found that teachers responsible for subjects rooted in experiential learning face unique hurdles for keeping their students engaged.

Despite the difficulties, Thinkabit Lab teachers are finding creative ways to keep their lessons interactive and meaningful. With limited summer programming due to COVID 19, we offered our weeklong, invention-based STEM camps virtually for the first time this summer. To support our educators, Thinkabit Lab staff provided real-time instructional best practices to guide teachers in implementing highly engaging camps in a connected learning environment. Additionally, Qualcomm provided all students with hardware kits and in some cases provided laptops and tablets to ensure equitable participation. Following a handful of successful STEM summer camps, one teacher noted that students are “extremely capable when it comes to technology” and “if you have the right tech, you can bring the classroom to the students and still have meaningful learning and interaction.”

What does the right tech look like? Thinkabit Lab teachers are leveraging video, podcasts, avatar programs, virtual coding manipulatives, software programs, and even games to engage students. It all comes down to “creating online content that helps break students out of their usual home routines,” says one teacher. “I think it will be an evolving challenge that will be difficult to facilitate but worth the effort.” Teachers have been learning to juggle multiple apps with one computer to teach in a connected learning environment, as a result, teachers noticed an increase in computer literacy for both themselves and students. As a silver lining to this challenge, educators have been able to streamline instruction using multiple devices at once, which will carry forward to the fall and facilitate student learning virtually.

Many teachers expressed how connected learning provides an opportunity for students to creatively explore engineering and think outside the box. While students were provided with crafts to create robotic inventions from home, they were also encouraged to use everyday household items around them (with parent permission, of course). In fact, during the Thinkabit Lab summer camps, instructors saw their students use building blocks, ping pong balls, cardboard, water bottles, and childhood toys to create unique inventions. “It will be interesting to see how creative students can be with using things around their house to complete their projects,” said one teacher, who aims to design their class as a creative outlet for students.

Another unexpected positive outcome noted by teachers is how parents now have a better understanding of what their children are learning. “A parent emailed me after her son showed her a circuit with the sensor and LED he created. He was beaming with pride and she was so excited as well,” says one teacher. “We’ve received emails from parents thanking us for the experience because they saw engagement and excitement from their student during the week.”

Offering Thinkabit Lab STEM camps in a connected learning environment this summer allowed teachers to identify meaningful content that students feel invested in learning, regardless of the academic subject. These insights and practices will also help guide teachers as they continue to teach Thinkabit Lab invention-based projects in a connected learning environment this Fall semester.

Qualcomm is committed to engaging students in the world of STEM and its everyday applications. Our Thinkabit Lab continues to evolve and support the amazing network of instructors to make this vision a reality. They are just one example of how educators across the country are harnessing creativity and resourcefulness as they adapt to virtual classrooms.