Computing Profession

Brown MOOC to Lure High School Students to STEM

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This April and June, high school students worldwide will have the opportunity to take a massive open online course (MOOC) offered by Brown University about careers in science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). The course, "Exploring Engineering," is a free, two-week, interactive workshop in which students will learn what engineering is, the specialties within it, the design process, prototyping, and redesign, among other topics. They will also learn how to work in teams on a particular project.

Wendy Drexler, Brown University director of Online Development, says that few pre-college students know what engineers do and teachers are rarely engineers. "If students are good in math and science, their guidance counselor suggests engineering, but they have no idea what that means unless a family member is an engineer," Drexler says. She says 40 to 50 percent of students who pursue science or engineering majors switch to other majors or fail to get any degree.  

Brown’s STEM course has been met with enthusiasm from students and teachers alike. The April section, which was announced in early November 2012, was fully enrolled with 500 students before Christmas. As of mid-February, the June section already had 229 students. Karen M. Haberstroh, Brown’s Director of STEM Outreach and an Assistant Professor of Research Engineering, will teach both courses with Thomas Webster, who has joint appointments with Brown, as Associate Professor of Engineering, and Northeastern University, as Chair and Professor, Department of Chemical Engineering. Professors Haberstroh and Webster are husband and wife.

Marti Harris, Gartner Analyst in Higher Education Strategies, says Brown was smart to identify STEM early on for a MOOC. "They’re seeding high school students to come into higher education with more knowledge in that area. There is such a need to encourage STEM everywhere." Harris believes there also will be MOOCs for younger students, "with an elementary [school] focus, like first through seventh grade, to hit them earlier."

Brown’s course will run on Canvas Network, an open learning management platform for MOOCs built by Instructure, Salt Lake City, that launched in 2012. So far, over 300 colleges, universities, and school districts use Canvas Network. Harris says MOOCs can be delivered in two ways: courses originally designed as MOOCs, like those available from Coursera (which partners with 33 universities, including Brown), EdX, Udacity, and Khan Academy, and commercial platforms like Canvas Network, CourseSites by BlackBoard, and Pearson OpenClass, which are online platforms the companies are opening up so that MOOCs can operate on them. The platform does make a difference, says Harris. "There is a distinction between just offering an online course and a MOOC [where] the approach is more social, it’s more of a collaboration of individuals within the course, rather than just individuals taking a course by themselves," she says. "That collaboration between learners is an important piece."

The cost of implementing the course was low for Brown because it is already an Instructure customer and pays a subscription rate based on the number of students enrolled at the university. Enrollment in the STEM MOOC was limited to 500 students in order to keep participation high and to make the course more interactive, an Instructure spokesman says. Brown may increase that number if the course scales well, Drexler says, though 500 is considered large.

The MOOC is an experiment in several ways. Unlike many MOOCs that are video lectures followed by multiple choice quizzes, according to Instructional Designer Jesse Schreier, Brown’s STEM MOOC students won’t just listen or read about what engineers do and the way they do it. To make the MOOC interactive, students on virtual teams will design and prototype something. It isn’t clear what size the teams should be, however. "We envision 20 people, but it’s tough because many people sign up for MOOCs, but never log in," Schreier says. "So we can’t assign teams of four because they may never log in."

Those who do follow through will learn about the process of design through brainstorming, working with CAD/CAM-like tools, and redesigning with constraints, like the cost of safety and materials, says Schreier. They will also evaluate other teams’ projects to discern what their own designs might have missed, and will possibly vote on the best one.

Students will also interact through daily activities, rather than weekly assignments, which are the norm for online courses. On forums, for example, "Exploring Engineering" students will interview an engineer about his or her career. Or if they don’t know an engineer, they can construct a hypothetical dialogue with an engineer from the past  based on archival or online material. They can then upload the information they gathered. It can be in the form of a video, a transcript, or any material on any uploadable platform. Once all have been submitted, students will discuss them.

Students are expected to participate for about ten hours a week, or 30 minutes to one hour a day. Schreier hopes that they will be "really engaged and stay on as long as they want."


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