Ken-ichi Ueda and Scott Loarie demonstrated the new iNaturalist iPhone app at Stanford's Jasper Ridge Biological Preserve

It’s great to be a student these days. The opportunities to learn math, science, technology and engineering have come such a long way from the days of sitting through interminable hours of watching teachers solve equations and explain complicated theories on the chalkboard.

Witnessing how technology has redefined learning makes me wish I could start school all over again. Covering the subject of education innovation and the future of learning for MindShift, I’m excited to see that the old model is changing. With access to a computer or mobile device, apps and websites, students can have a completely different learning experience – one that resonates within the digital world they live.


The stereotypical image of a scientist is that of one who works long, solitary hours in a sealed lab sequestered from others. But most science research in the real world happens with lots of collaboration between researchers from across the globe. And the same scenario is happening in schools, too.

In schools like Napa New Tech High in Napa, Calif., students work in groups on projects for every subject they study. At Covington Elementary School in Los Altos, Calif., students help each other figure out math problems they’re learning on the Khan Academy website. And when they’re stuck with a problem, their teacher Richard Julian steps in — he doesn’t solve it for them, but helps them figure out how to solve it themselves.

Scientists are also collaborating with students, asking eager, young learners to help them gather data and conduct research. So when ornithologists at Cornell University study breeding and nesting behavior, when NASA researchers need an extra few thousand pairs of eyes on a telescope, and when biologists and gardeners investigate changes in ladybug populations, they ask K-12 students to participate in the research — often as part of their regular class curriculum.

Students are also working with each other and scientists across the globe on their own science projects, as with Tanya Katovich’s class in Palatine, Illinois. Katovich’s students connected to a radioactivity lab clear across the globe — a Geiger counter in Australia — to find out whether their cell phones are frying their brains. Now that’s worth learning!


Studying a subject just for the sake of knowing it is no longer a viable reason to learn. Educators are realizing that connecting curriculum to what’s important to students in their daily lives, as well as to what’s meaningful in the real world, will motivate students to want to learn more.

That was the case with Tanya Katovich’s class, whose students were invested in learning the outcomes of whether sleeping with their cell phones under their pillows was harming them. Similarly, challenged with the task of finding engaging ways to measure asthmatic kids’ oxygen levels, a group of students at Microsoft’s Imagine Cup contest created a mobile game that makes those annoying breathing tests more fun. The game connects the mobile phone to a spirometer, which controls Azmo, a fire-breathing dragon whose fiery breath destroys villages and castles.

Another student at the Imagine Cup created a tool designed to help visually impaired students with taking notes in class.

With access to real data and real tools available online, students are able to draw their own conclusions and create their own problem-solving devices, giving them a glimpse into the world outside the confines of school, and making them responsible, contributing citizens of the world. Today, anyone can be an engineer.


There will come a day when textbooks will no longer be the predominant source of learning in schools. That time is not as far off as you might think.

And it’s not just a matter of digitizing textbooks, though that’s the very first baby-step. Subjects like math, science and engineering are becoming untethered from print books and gaining new life in apps, games and websites.

Citizen science apps like Project NoahiNaturalist and The WildLab are just a few mobile phone apps that encourage learners to gather scientific data in their surrounding environment and submit it to sites that use the information for everything from geo-tagging bird species to logging plants and animals.

Not to mention sites that teach students how to program and build robotsmotion-sensor apps that teach fractions, and apps that chart the stars for astronomy buffs.

With tools like Sketchup, students can design and create anything in their imagination. With sites like Microsoft’s WorldWide Telescope and Google Earth, they can virtually explore every part of the world from their own classrooms or bedrooms.

These examples just barely scratch the surface of the types of innovations that are happening in STEM education. As technology becomes more sophisticated, so will the young minds that harness it.

This post was originally written for NBC’s Education Nation blog called The Learning Curve.

  • As they say for an Inquiring Mind the Whole World is A Laboratory….this is becoming true

  • thedudeabides

    All well and good, however administration and politicians are only concerned with state/federal test scores.  Teachers are being forced to comply with standardized learning techniques that get kids to memorize facts and concepts rather than actually experience science (worst case scenario – think Atlanta).  Time in hours is allocated for each topic force fed to students then you must move on to cover all the material for the state test, which by the way, is usually administered 2-3 months before the course is actually completed forcing teachers to concentrate on on the topics which have the most questions asked. Schools, and often teachers, are judged by admin, politicians, and even parents by these test scores NOT on student experience.

    Fourteen years ago when I started teaching high school science we could easily spend a month on projects such as making and using solar cookers, water quality, environmental restoration, the effects of grazing on grasslands, fire science, life cycles of frogs, or any number of topics that show students how science applies to their real life.

    Thanks to NCLB (interesting that a Republican President would institute a socialist, one size fits all, program.) which the current administration is, more or less, continuing, and increased teacher/student ratios due to budget cuts, teachers barley have time to do labs (pre-lab discussion, lab, post lab discussion) in science classes much less get students involved in real life investigations.

    The problem lies not with the teachers, classrooms, or textbooks for that matter, but with adopted political policies.

  • Kelle

    I find #1 and #3 particularly exciting, and it also makes me wish I were back in school. I believe the idea of their schoolwork having a real-world impact has to be a wonderful motivator for the majority of students. Plus, the mobile apps help extend learning beyond the classroom; I used to smuggle books to the family table and I’m sure I’d be doing the same with my smartphone!

  • Darlene

    Nice!  Almost all of these opportunities, and hundreds more, can be found at (a popular site that connects people to citizen science projects). 

  • Darlene

    In fact, has partnered up with NBCLearn, the National Science Foundation and Discover Magazine to present a host of citizen science opportunities to teachers, students and the general public as part of the Changing Planet series, produced by NBCLearn.

  • Anonymous

    This really sounds like a wonderful expansion of educational possibilities. But there is a potential downside. This new technology will depend on two things: teacher ability and access. As we know, in poor communities there are less seasoned teachers and less access, both at school and at home. So as much as I love the idea of using technology to widen the educational experience, this seems to widen the technology/educational opportunity divide at the same time. It makes me wonder; How many people will be left behind?

    • Anonymous

      So true. The discrepancy between what kinds of tools are accessible to the haves and have-nots is huge in this country, and it’s an important topic that MindShift addresses in different ways. Take a look at to see how technology could play a role in closing the digital divide. Again, these are isolated programs here and there, but they do exist. The goal is to make it the rule rather than the exception.

Sponsored by

Become a KQED sponsor