MIT interactives get students thinking like scientists

The videos feature professors from the U.S., Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan.

STATESMAN WASHINGTON BUREAUJuly 24, 2013 

MIT Professor Richard Larson, a pioneer in education technology, got an idea for how to make math and science come alive for high school students when he watched a teacher at work in a chilly classroom in northern China.

Two light bulbs hung from the ceiling. An old TV was mounted on a shelf in a corner. Students kept their coats on inside that day in October 2004. But the teacher was dynamic.

The teacher began a video but would hit the pause button from time to time and get a discussion going with her class about what they’d just seen.

“What she was interrupting was a one-hour lecture,” Larson said. “What if you designed it to be interrupted, and created as a teaching duet — half from video, half from the live class?”

The encounter inspired Larson and Massachusetts Institute of Technology colleague Elizabeth Murray to create BLOSSOMS — interactive videos for high school students in math and science. The class watches short segments of video, like “Rational versus Irrational Numbers,” for instance. Then the teacher takes over with some hands-on projects and discussions designed to fire up critical thinking skills and spark enthusiasm.

“Our theory is if (students) go deep this way it’s something they can get a higher passion for, and if the exercise is done correctly, it’s something they’ll never forget,” said Larson, a systems engineering professor at MIT and founding director of the Learning International Network Consortium.

BLOSSOMS, one of the consortium’s projects, stands for Blended Learning Open Source Science or Math Studies. Blended learning refers to the combination of face-to-face classroom time with computer-related programs. They’re freely available for use anywhere.

The videos have titles like “How do mosquitoes fly in the rain?” with David Hu, who teaches biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology; and “The respiratory system of birds,” with Seham Tahir Musa al Bohadja, a high school teacher in Saudi Arabia.

“The multicultural end of it is also really interesting because my area is such a melting pot,” said Andrea Distelhurst, a middle school science teacher in Bradenton, Fla. “In Florida, there’s such a big influx of different ethnicities. It’s nice for kids to see the possibility of lessons delivered from people of other countries or different backgrounds.”

Larson said BLOSSOMS wasn’t designed to be like other kinds of education technology that reduce the need for teachers, such as software that teaches elementary reading or math with games, or online college courses that replace 500-student lectures.

“I can’t imagine K-12 teachers being replaced by computers,” he said. “I think the role of the teacher is foremost. That’s why we designed BLOSSOMS the way we did, to support the in-class teacher.”

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