2020’s sudden shift towards a virtual learning environment presented the Qualcomm® Thinkabit Lab™ with a daunting task: adapt our hands-on engineering projects, collaborative group work and interactive coding classes to fit into this new virtual educational world. During distanced learning, it became necessary to approach the program differently, and our nationwide network of collaborators rallied together to implement our weeklong, invention-based STEM camps in an online setting.
Our Thinkabit Lab program demonstrates to students from all cultural and socioeconomic backgrounds that they can be part of inventing the wireless world of the future. Learners of all ages explore careers available at Qualcomm and other technology companies. They engage in fun and unique engineering projects culminating in the design of an Internet of Things (IoT)-themed invention to solve a real-world problem. These activities help students understand where they see themselves in the future workforce and how they could use technology to help make the world a better place.
Earlier this month, the Thinkabit Lab had the opportunity to speak at the Annual Learning Impact Conference, which brings together leaders across K-12, higher education, corporate learning, and EdTech who are inspiring and achieving the new educational models that are helping every learner make a difference. Dr. Gloria Bañuelos, Head of Thinkabit Lab, discussed how our research informed how we adjusted our curriculum to fit a virtual setting and the planning, development, and coordination behind getting engineering kits into hundreds of students' hands.
To understand how educators were preparing for the unusual school year and virtual learning environment, the Thinkabit Lab team surveyed teachers within their collaborator sites. Thinkabit Lab teachers leveraged video, podcasts, avatar programs, virtual coding manipulatives, software programs, and even games to engage students. To further support our educators, Thinkabit Lab staff provided real-time instructional best practices to guide teachers in implementing highly engaging camps in a connected learning environment. Additionally, Qualcomm provided all students with hardware kits and in a few cases provided laptops and tablets to ensure equitable participation. As one teacher noted, it all comes down to “creating online content that helps break students out of their usual home routines”.
One of the most challenging invention-based projects, AgTech for Good, was implemented at our Thinkabit Lab in Porterville, an agricultural community in Central California. High school students developed apps of their own choosing such as an app that could prevent overwatering crops and wasting water. They used Bluetooth to communicate wirelessly between the app and hardware, including a sensor, motors, and light-emitting diodes (LEDs) -- all of this from the comfort and safety of their own homes.
At the Impact Learning Conference, Erik Santos, Pathways Learning Director for Porterville Unified School District, addressed program implementation, promoting impactful student outcomes and lessons learned. He shared best practices for guiding students through hands-on STEM activities in a virtual learning environment. For example, Santos encouraged educators to allow students time and flexibility in developing activities is key. He also stressed the importance of making expectations clear and being available to provide direct assistance beyond the “live” classroom time. Rather, students can participate in activities individually and then share them during group virtual classroom sessions. And finally, Erik recommended that teachers ensure that they plan for and carve out time to play catch up with the students as a group.
The Thinkabit Lab’s quick pivot during 2020’s sudden shift towards virtual learning provided many lessons learned. The Annual Learning Impact conference was a great opportunity for our Thinkabit Lab team and collaborating educators to share these experiences and they are captured in our 10 best remote learning practices for teaching STEM.
The Kentucky STEAM Mobile Learning program, a collaboration between the University of Kentucky and Qualcomm Wireless Reach, also highlighted how technology is essential to support students in today’s new learning environments. Dr. Julie Evans, CEO of Project Tomorrow, a Wireless Reach research partner on this program, shared at the conference how students need a new generation of computing devices that are always on, always connected on to support learning both at home and school. Teachers and students require devices with extended battery life and the capacity for high bandwidth apps. For the 2021-22 school year, elementary school children and pre-service teachers in the Kentucky program will be utilizing low cost Always Connected PCs (ACPC) that have cellular connectivity embedded and powered by the Qualcomm Snapdragon platform. The ongoing research examining the effectiveness of ACPCs on students’ learning outcomes from this program will be completed in 2022.
The pandemic impacted lives in unimaginable ways. 2020’s sudden school closures forced a shift towards virtual learning environments and education looked vastly different for most. Teachers pivoted and found new ways to deliver education, while many students struggled due to a lack of broadband internet and adequate devices to access their online schoolwork. Qualcomm, through programs like Thinkabit Lab and Wireless Reach, continued supporting partners and collaborators within the education ecosystem. It was an honor to have the opportunity to share our learnings and our programs’ successes in this space at the Impact Learning Conference.