NASA STEM Challenge for Grades 9-12 InWorld

A competition from NASA provides a challenge for High school students, in 2 phases. In phase 1 students have an opportunity to work cooperatively, in teams of three-to-five students, as engineers and scientists to solve real-world problems related to the James Webb Space Telescope. Final solutions from this first phase of the challenge are due on Dec. 15, 2010.

Teams who complete Phase 1 are then paired with participating college engineering students for Phase 2, the InWorld phase of the challenge. Each InWorld team will refine designs and create 3-D models of the Webb telescope.

For more information about the challenge, visit

Collaboration is a 21st Century Skill

Avatars collaborating on making hair

Employers complain that the incoming workforce lacks what is needed.  Are we preparing our students appropriately for their future?   Tony Wagner in his book, The Global Achievement Gap discusses what he calls the 7 survival skills for the 21st century.  According to him these skills are:

  1. Problem-solving and critical thinking;
  2. Collaboration across networks and leading by influence;
  3. Agility and adaptability;
  4. Initiative and entrepreneurship;
  5. Effective written and oral communication;
  6. Accessing and analyzing information; and
  7. Curiosity and imagination.

These are the kinds of things we discuss in our annual reviews with supervisors and we know these skills make us more productive and useful to the organization.

Most of these 7 skills are supported with project-based  participant production in a virtual environment.  Student production in virtual environments involves building, scripting and researching to develop content.  This type of activity lends itself to a collaborative atmosphere and the ‘network’ across which students collaborate can extend across the globe. (Collaborative building in Second Life – Palo Alto Research Center). Problem solving takes place while planning and again while producing.  Limitations must be considered and decisions about the best solution take place for effective results.  Students must use mathematics and communication skills as they work together to complete their intended product.  They may need to do some research and analyze information as they progress in their building.  Discovery can take place and a plan may change or students may need to adapt a plan and influence colleagues toward a different approach.  Of course, curiosity and imagination are always at play as students build what defies common perceptions and sometimes the laws of physics.  It is the process that is most important here, what the students have to do to achieve their goal – not the final product.

Which Comes First – Problem Solving or Facts?

Perhaps they can be learned together in a more meaningful way. In a Frontline video James Paul Gee makes a case for using video games with students to teach 21st Century skills of problem solving and innovation.

We typically test students on the facts that they know but are less adept at assessing if they can use the facts to solve problems. We often attempt to ensure students know the vocabulary and facts before we give them experiences in which these words and facts are used. They are both important and require the other in order to be meaningful. You need facts to solve problems. A game or virtual environment has the quality of providing an experience in which a student can solve problems and learn facts and concepts simultaneously, they may even learn vocabulary after concepts are learned.

I watched a 7 year old playing a video game called Spore, the concepts were about evolution and biology and the game required manipulating an organism in varying stages of evolution. This little girl solved a variety of problems including avoiding predators, experimenting with mobility and communication and finding shelter and food. Among the concepts learned were the importance of a brain to a living organism, usefulness of camouflage, and the value of mobility types. She does not yet know all the vocabulary associated with these concepts but the frame of reference allows for a meaningful learning of facts and vocabulary. When told the word “predator” and “camouflage” in relation to the images on the screen that she had played with, it made perfect sense and the words were then used in conversation. Interestingly, none of this took place in a school classroom.

James Paul Gee describes games as being best for “preparation for future learning”, to give a foundation and background for learning that will take place later in another mode. What are the implications for children with limited experiences? Could a virtual environment provide that preparation for future learning effectively enough?