U.S. senators, students, and education-technology experts gathered on Capitol Hill last week for an event that highlighted the benefits of technology in K-12 and higher education. From robots to earthquake shake tables, the exhibits demonstrated that technology is more than just cool–it can change peoples’ lives.
The technology showcase, titled "Defining the Future of Learning," was part of the State Educational Technology Directors Association’s annual leadership forum, which took place Nov. 1-4. The showcase highlighted projects made possible by Title II, Part D (Enhancing Education Through Technology, or EETT) grants, National Science Foundation grants, and the partnerships that have resulted.
Located in the Senate Hart Building, the showcase hosted more than 500 national policy makers and thought leaders, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., and Sens. Jeff Bingaman, D-N.M., Kay Hagan, D-N.C., and Patty Murray, D-Wash.
"We were so pleased to host this important event," said Mary Ann Wolf, SETDA’s executive director until Nov. 16, when Douglas Levin will succeed her. (See "SETDA names new executive director.") "This was an opportunity to highlight how EETT programs serve as a catalyst for school improvement initiatives that change instructional practice using technology. We greatly appreciate our honored guests’ leadership for ensuring that our nation’s students are prepared for the 21st-century global economy."
Wolf said SETDA extended an invitation for all senators to attend, and some representatives for Republican senators attended the exhibit as well.
Sen. Reid praised the tremendous contributions made by educators who are developing cutting-edge technologies for teaching and learning. He cited miniature solar cars, robots playing soccer, and earthquake shake tables as examples of innovative technologies with broad-reaching impact—all showcased at the event.
[Click above to watch Sen. Reid at the exhibit on eSN.TV]
"People do not realize that one of the most earthquake-prone places in the world is the state of Nevada," said Reid. "As a result of that, I became interested in what the University of Nevada, Reno, was doing regarding research on earthquakes. We have done some tremendously important and valuable work there."
The University of Nevada-Reno’s George E. Brown, Jr., Network for Earthquake Engineering Simulation (NEES) was created to improve the understanding of earthquakes and their effects. It is a shared national network consisting of 15 experimental facilities, as well as collaborative tools, a centralized data repository, and earthquake simulation software.
Together, these resources provide the means for more advanced earthquake research, based on computational simulations of how buildings, bridges, utility systems, coastal regions, and geomaterials perform during seismic events.
Sen. Murray explained why she believes it’s essential for teachers to have the tools and training they need to provide a first-class education for all children.
"If we want to effectively prepare our students to thrive in the 21st-century global economy, we need to continue expanding technology opportunities in the classroom," said Murray. "That is why I have been a strong advocate for classroom technology that gives teachers and students the resources they need and deserve, and why organizations like SETDA are so important."
The University of Washington demonstrated a project called Access Computing at the showcase.
According to presenters, the shortage of highly qualified professionals in computing fields is partly a result of the under-representation of specific subgroups of Americans, including women, racial and ethnic minorities, and people with disabilities. Access Computing targets this last group in particular.
"High-tech careers are open to individuals with disabilities because of advancements in assistive technologies that provide [greater] access to computers," said Wendy Chisholm, co-author of Universal Design for Web Applications and a participant in Access Computing. "This project works to increase the participation of people with disabilities in [science, technology, engineering, and math] by designing and developing technologies for individuals with disabilities, including tactile graphics, MobileASL, and WebAnywhere."
Sen. Bingaman also toured the exhibits and agreed on the need to support programs such as EETT. He highlighted the need for 21st-century learning environments and robust broadband connections to support these environments.
"Technology is an extremely important education tool," said Bingaman, a senior member of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee. "It was useful to experience how emerging technologies are being put to use in classrooms across the country. And it reinforced my commitment to investing in the effective use of technology in schools."
New Mexico University demonstrated a project called Math Snacks: Addressing Gaps in Conceptual Mathematics.
Despite general gains in math learning in the United States, researchers have noticed similar critical gaps in the conceptual understanding of core math concepts and processes among students, presenters said.
Designed by math educators, mathematicians, and multimedia learning specialists, the media in Math Snacks are organized around math concepts that represent "weaknesses in understanding across multiple settings," said Karin Wiburg, associate dean for research in New Mexico University’s College of Education. "The modules are easy to access and teach, focus on one concept at a time, and provide rich nourishment for the middle-grades curriculum."
Other federally funded projects and organizations exhibiting at the showcase included Advanced Robotics Technology for Societal Impact at Spelman College, the Institute for Chemistry Literacy through Computational Science at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, the North Carolina Solar Center at North Carolina State University, the National Science Digital Library at the University Corporation for Atmospheric Research, supercomputing at the University of Maine, and more.