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2016 November 7 - 10:38 am

Supporting Stem Success with Smart Product Design

Education Tech Firms Have Key Role To Play In Stem Education


Demand for science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) skills in the workforce has steadily increased over the past decade and shows no sign of slowing down. The strongest job growth over the next several years is predicted in mathoriented occupations. We also know that STEM skills are increasingly relevant to traditionally non-STEM fields.

Creating a robust talent pipeline to meet market demand is a priority for academic institutions, educators and employers. It’s necessary for a healthy economy and for thriving communities. Even more important, however, is the positive impact obtaining these skills has on students. Mastering STEM subjects gives students the confidence and momentum they need to achieve their education and life goals. Proficiency in STEM subjects can open the door to endless opportunities.

The Role of EdTech Companies in STEM

With this in mind, how can EdTech providers contribute to student success in STEM subjects? To improve the learning experience, the industry had to reexamine everything about the user experience.

EdTech companies, such as Cengage, are now uniquely situated to play a key role in ensuring a healthy STEM pipeline. In order to do so, we are creating learning experiences that fit seamlessly into the lives of today’s learners. Digital solutions can engage students by providing “real-world” context to make content interesting and relevant. This ultimately helps motivate students to stay on their STEM learning pathway.

To create these meaningful and engaging learning experiences, we begin by taking a deep dive into the lives of our users. We spend a lot of time with students to understand how they live and learn most effectively. We acknowledge that the challenges we are trying to solve aren’t necessarily the same challenges that we face in our own lives.

Students have a unique set of needs. Truly understanding user pain points gives us the empathy necessary to create a learning experience that produces the desired results — improved outcomes and student success.

Understanding Students’ Needs

Through this journey of understanding students’ needs, we’ve learned some interesting things about the struggles they encounter, particularly with respect to STEM courses. For instance, when asked, 76 percent of students told us that they find math difficult. In addition, 86 percent of instructors believe students struggle with critical-thinking skills and study habits, areas that are so important in STEM fields.

Acknowledging the issues isn’t enough, however. We had to map the journey that led students to encounter these challenges. We know lack of time creates a barrier to math success, for example. More than 70 percent of students indicate lack of time as a factor contributing to their lack of confidence, ability to complete homework assignments and probability of passing exams. Minimal access to quality online resources outside the classroom and the absence of “just in time help” are also frequently reported frustrations. Just as small successes lead to big accomplishments, small disappointments have the potential to lead to larger consequences, such as failing a course or dropping out of school all together.

As a result of the time spent observing, interacting and learning from students, we developed a deeper appreciation and understanding of how quantitative courses are taught and learned. From this informed position, we develop products that place students at the center of the learning experience. While ease and speed of content delivery has improved, the heart of the digital learning experience is in how students interact with the learning material. And further, how that interaction impacts outcomes.

Putting What We’ve Learned Into Practice

We recently designed a new course experience for math, statistics and physics. Our initial research revealed that instructors need a solution that helps students achieve a baseline knowledge necessary for success in the course — without taking up precious class time. Students, on the flip side, need a solution that helps close their knowledge gaps without negatively impacting their final grade for the course.

In order to address this challenge, we integrated a pre-course assessment tool into the curriculum. This assessment identifies prior learning gaps and delivers a personalized improvement plan. Students are not made to feel discouraged by what they don’t know. Instead, personalized activities and manageable goals motivate them to improve their score and prerequisite skills. The tool is easy for students to use and doesn’t add to instructors’ workloads.

Experiential Learning

Additionally, we've made significant investments in our careerfocused experiential learning experiences to engage students and emphasize everyday applications of STEM knowledge and skills. To give students in workforce training programs access to real-life scenarios and interactive training activities, we have developed virtual simulation experiences for skills areas including automotive, electrical HVAC, construction, welding, robotics and cosmetology industries. Rather than focus on memorization, students are best served by simulations and video-based decision-making scenarios that support effective learning through experience.

Building Confidence through Engagement While the importance of STEM skills cannot be overstated, we know that they alone will not fill the gap between the labor force and the job market. STEM skills are infinitely more valuable when paired with employability skills, such as leadership, communication and collaboration. With this in mind, we focus on activities that engage students and build confidence with an emphasis on problem solving, critical thinking and persistence.

When the textbook was first invented, it provided the connection between a brilliant professor and an eager student. Fast forward hundreds of years later and the role of content providers has evolved dramatically. Understanding the student experience has enabled us to find new ways to collaborate, inspire and improve learning. As job growth in STEM fields outpaces job growth in all other areas, we are committed to delivering an academic experience that equips students with both the tangible and intangible skills they need to succeed in the workforce.

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