While things like interactive projectors, tablets and document cameras are now common in K-12 classrooms, most schools still lack access to true STEM and design technologies. Children have little, if any, exposure to 3D printers or immersive virtualization tools common in fields like architecture, game design and the STEM careers schools so often push.
It was this fact that led two faculty members at Iowa State University to conceive of and design a traveling mobile classroom that would feature high-tech tools like a MakerBot 3D printer and Oculus Rift virtualization headsets, hobby versions of the expensive and professional grade equipment used everyday in the design school.
“This is stuff we consider to be passé practically. We use it all the time,” explains David Ringholz professor and chair of Iowa State University’s Department of Industrial Design. “Our goal is to get this out there and stimulate creativity and design thinking and to just get people exposure to this kind of stuff.”
Ringholz and his colleague, Pete Evans, first put together a proposal for the mobile classroom about a year ago. It was an ambitious project and one the university ultimately decided not to fund.
“We really just shot for the moon in that first version,” Ringholz says.
They went back to the drawing board and scaled back their design and with a donated trailer, $10,000 from internal department funds and about $25,000 in research funds, the mobile classroom became a reality.
When it came time to choose the technology that would go inside the mobile classroom, Ringholz and Evans drew on their experience and on various learning theories. They focused on technologies that promoted physiological connections. That’s why most of the equipment in the mobile classroom is hands-on, immersive and interactive.
“It’s not just moving into the digital space,” says Pete Evans, lecturer in the Iowa State College School of Design. “It’s also using those tools to make real things and real results.
The mobile classroom called FLEx, which stands for Forward Learning Experience, has been on the road since it debuted at the Science Center of Iowa’s Mini Maker Faire in September. Inside the trailer is a large format 3D virtualization experience that consists of a big screen and large format rear projector.
“We can bring kids in there and use different types of interface mechanisms to get them to manipulate 3D models,” Ringholz says.
The FLEx classroom also has modular workstations made out of road cases that can be rolled out and set up anywhere. Each station is set up for a different activity. For example, some have Oculus Rift glasses, another station is set up for rapid prototyping and yet another is designed for interactive circuit building using Little Bits, a DIY electronics kit.
At first glance, some of this equipment may seem a little too high-tech for the younger crowd, but Ringholz and Evans experience suggests otherwise.
“Kids are a lot more flexible in their ability to learn this technology. I don’t think we give them enough credit for being able to adapt to and conceptualize these technologies that it might be harder for us to think about implementing,” Evans says.
Ringholz agrees. “Kids are with it. They know this stuff,” he says.
Students are usually most excited by the Oculus Rift and when you consider it’s connection to gaming that makes sense. The headset is essentially like an immersive video game to them. Students are also fascinated by the 3D printer and their ability to dream up an object and watch that object become something real and tangible. It’s experiences like these that can inspire a child to take an interest in STEM subjects and careers.
“If we don’t introduce those technologies to kids at a younger age than we are really going to miss a lot of opportunities,” Evans says.
It’s also a way to introduce students to innovative ways of solving problems using state-of-the-art technology, creativity and critical thinking skills, all experiences that will serve them well in college and beyond.
“There’s no question in my mind that we have already touched some students who have had life changing experiences with this program and it’s across all age levels,” Ringholz says.
He recalls bringing the FLEx classroom to the Science Center of Iowa and how several students on the Autism spectrum were especially touched by the experience of using the technology.
“There’s something about the form factor and the technology component of this that speaks specifically to some of those kids with social issues,” Ringholz says. “You just know right away when you’re hitting them in the right spot.”
As Ringholz and Evans hoped, word of the mobile classroom spread and they began getting requests from schools interested in scheduling a visit. Ringholz says in the future, he would love to partner with the community on this initiative and even grow the program to include multiple trailers filled with different modules that can be used for professional development with elementary school teachers and faculty at all levels.
“We absolutely have ambition to grow this and we’re anxious to work with educators who want to develop a curriculum and work with people who want to help us develop assessment mechanisms,” Ringholz says. “We’re anxious to attach this to private and public funds. We’re hoping this thing has a long life.”