LINCOLN - Sensor-embedded shirts. Bluetooth-enabled shoes. Camera-equipped glasses.
The age of “wearable technology” has arrived, and with it a potential avenue for engaging elementary students in the STEM fields of science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
With nearly $1 million of support from the National Science Foundation, an interdisciplinary team from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln (UNL) and University of Nebraska at Omaha (UNO) is crafting a curriculum that will allow students to learn the science behind the fashion-forward technology.
Spanning both classrooms and after-school programs, the three-year project will offer inquiry-based activities to roughly 900 students in grades 4-6 who attend public school in Nebraska.
The curriculum will give students access to kits featuring conductive thread, LED lights, sensors and other components commonly found in high-tech garments. Students will also work with microcontrollers, which include miniscule circuit boards that can be programmed to direct the various devices attached to them.
“This project marries two areas that UNO has priortized, STEM education and community engagement,” explains Neal Grandgenett, UNO’s Dr. George and Sally Haddix Community Chair of STEM Education. “It’s hard to name an industry that isn’t impacted by technology today and so the earlier that we can introduce students to the different ways technology is used today, the more options they will have available to them when they go to college.”
UNO will also be including wearable technologies into to graduate-level education offerings for current and future STEM teachers.
Overall, the research team envisions such activities helping students learn basic principles of engineering design – including electricity and circuitry – that they can then apply to create LED-encrusted bracelets and other apparel.
“It’s hands-on, minds-on (activity), and all of the technology is exposed,” said Brad Barker, UNL associate professor and coordinator of 4-H youth development and principal investigator of the project. “They’re manipulating an object in the real world. We’re hoping to teach these students to think like engineers, and wearable technology is the vehicle that we’re using to do it.
“The next science standards specifically focus on engineering, but engineering traditionally is not taught in schools, especially at these grades. We saw an opportunity to fill that gap with this new curriculum.”
Grandgenett will lead a team of UNO faculty and students who will help to refine and to evaluate the implementation of the new curriculum across the state. The team will help to examine whether the curriculum enhances students’ engineering-related knowledge, skills and attitudes – particularly their interest in the field’s many potential careers.
“This is an age when students are very impressionable,” Barker said. “By fourth or fifth grade, many are self-selecting out of science and engineering. We think an intervention at this age group could be especially important for keeping them interested.”
The UNL-UNO team also aims to determine whether wearable technology encourages more STEM participation among females and other traditionally underrepresented groups. A pilot study conducted in the summer found that girls constituted roughly 60 percent of participants.
Over the past several years, UNO has made a strong effort to encourage more women to join the IT and engineering fields through projects such as the Women in IT Initiative and Girls Inc., EUREKA-STEM summer camps.
“The number of women in STEM fields is uncharacteristically low,” explains Grandgenett. “Less than a quarter of STEM jobs across the country are held by women even though they make up more than half of the work force.”
Barker notes that the historical lack of female engineers mirrors an emerging shortage of engineering professionals as a whole; however, Barker also believes that this trend runs counter to the exponential prospects of wearable technology, which industry experts have projected could grow from $12 million to more than $18 billion in annual sales by 2017.
In addition to Grandgenett and Barker, the rest of the UNL-UNO team includes:
- Gwen Nugent, research professor at UNL’s Nebraska Center for Research on Children, Youth, Families and Schools
- Carl Nelson, UNL associate professor of mechanical and materials engineering
- Jennifer Melander, UNL assistant professor and science literacy specialist
- Kim Larson, coordinator of professional development for the 21st Century Community Learning Centers Program
- Michelle Krehbiel, UNL assistant professor of youth development
- Derrick Nero, UNO P12 engineering education instructor
- Amelia Squires, UNO STEM outreach coordinator
- Vicki Lentfer, UNO STEM education instructor
For more information on this project, please contact:
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