Under the direction of trained teachers, calculators can help students gain a deeper understanding of how problems are posed and resolved. Richard Schaar, the President for Educational & Productivity Solutions for Texas Instruments describes TI’s efforts to help teachers make the most of powerful new technology.
How does Texas Instruments approach the jobs of helping teachers to teach and helping students to learn?
In the traditional math class a lot of time is spent on what I’ll call handwritten algorithms, everything from taking square roots of numbers to factoring polynomials. It’s very important for students to know the basic skills to start with, but once those basic skills are learned, students need to be able to move past them. They need to do things like setting up problems, or developing critical thinking skills, or how to use the math or science concepts or skills that are being learned.
That’s the kind of learning that technology supports, because technology gives students the ability to see things that they could not have seen with pure pencil and paper calculations.
I’ve heard professors talk about this – that to some degree we’ve turned math into an experimental science. Because now you can rapidly run a whole set of “what if” scenarios, and see relationships in the mathematics that you would never see if each scenario required 20 or 30 minutes of paper and pencil computation.
So technology can help students understand some of the more fundamental aspects of the mathematics they are learning?
Yes, and we feel that’s more important today than it ever has been. We’re dealing in a more technological society. Almost every job has an aspect of technology that didn’t exist five or ten years ago.
Today, students can have high-powered computers in the palms of their hands. We need to give students experience with these kinds of tools in school, so that they’re not struggling with technology when they find it in the workplace.
Are there other ways in which technology supports learning?
We have a product which we call a calculator-based laboratory, or CBL, which allows you to go out into the real world and take data readings. You can collect data on all sorts of physical factors, from dissolved oxygen in pond water, to temperature, to motion and other things.
One of the most interesting experiments that I have seen is this: You take a ball on a string and you swing it back and forth and you can use the instrument to collect data on that motion, and graph it. Then you can download that data into the calculator, and analyze it. You’ll discover that it’s a parabola. You can get the formula for it, and you can now understand that periodic motion has that characteristic.
Another example: If you pluck a violin string, you hear the sound; you can also graph that out. And now you can break it down and understand that what you’re hearing are harmonics from the same basic patterns, which is a function of the length of the violin string.
Doesn’t this require a rather different approach to teaching?
You can’t speak of changing the classroom without bringing the teacher along. They are the ones who are out there every day on the line. You’ve put this technological power into the hands of students and it can rapidly become a situation where they head off on their own to do exploration. Now the teacher has a very different role, which is looking at what’s going on and understanding it and making sure the students are understanding what they are doing.
We recognize very clearly that the key is helping teachers be able to carry out that role.
What kinds of support does Texas Instruments offer teachers?
For one thing, if you’re a teacher and you’re not quite sure if you want to use some technology product, we will loan it to you, either individually or for a class, or classes, so that you can really get used to the technology and understand whether it works for you or not.
We help support an organization called T3, “T-Cubed”, meaning “Teachers Teaching With Technology”. T3 offers courses on about 23 different topics relating to how to use technology in the classroom. The courses are taught by practicing teachers, so that the teacher that is interested in understanding can get real practical experience and knowledge on how the technology gets used from another classroom teacher. This summer we had, I believe, 293 institutes, in 44 different states.
And these are free to teachers?
It depends on the local organizer. We underwrite some of the workshops, and sometimes there are grants from local businesses. Sometimes they are part of a school program, or it may involve the teacher paying an administrative fee or something like that. Basically, we supply the calculators, the materials, we secure an approved instructor. In some cases we give seed money so that the program can get started.
Besides the T3 workshops, are there any other ways you support professional development?
We are a partner with the National Science Foundation and their Urban Systemic Initiative program. In that capacity we are helping to develop inner city programs which go beyond T3, and other tailor-made programs for given districts.
Can you summarize your overall strategy?
Essentially, we are really trying to be a total member of the education community. We think that’s important for us both because it’s good business, and, frankly, because Texas Instruments is a high-tech company which needs well-educated workers at all different levels. I am not just talking about the electrical engineering and computer science fields. Even if you are a technician working in wafer manufacturing, you need to be able to read a graph and understand what it means, or we can’t use you, even in a manufacturing capacity. So in many ways, we have a very major interest in what happens in the nation’s math and science classrooms, and we look at ourselves as a real supporter of American education.
Examples of activities that incorporate technology-based activities in the classroom: