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Online learning and Rube Goldberg

By Hui-Hui Wang

This summer, we are very excited to have 16 teams of young people from across the state competing in our engineering design challenge, "Build a Rube Goldberg Machine." These third to eighth graders work together and learn the principles of physics to build a working machine that they can take to their county fairs.

When planning this challenge, I really wanted to know, "What role can an out-of-school, project-based contest play in building and transferring STEM knowledge and skills?

To address this, our science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) team has integrated a number of strategies. These teams of 3-10 youth in 10 counties have formed, adopted team names, and each has one or two adult volunteer leaders. Along with building the machine at face-to-face club meetings, the teams use online learning spaces -- team journals, a portfolio, and an "ask an expert" chat -- to support their learning. From these online records, we can also study their learning experiences. I am hoping these online activities will provide data and evidence for us to explore how the engineering design process helps students construct and transfer STEM knowledge and skills in an out-of-school, project-based contest.

Evaluation of this online learning idea is key. Minnesota 4-H is a statewide organization, so STEM teams meet online more often than they meet face to face. Asking youth to do a STEM project that uses a digital tool can move 4-H STEM club activities into the digital age. It can enable them to be mentored from a distance, access resources, interact with other youth, and many other benefits.

To help us understand online learning better, we'll be evaluating these questions: What do youth need in an online learning environment to best support their learning? How do they interact with the online learning tool? What kinds of supports do adult volunteers need to do best facilitate youth learning?

-- Hui-Hui Wang, former assistant professor and Extension educator, STEM education

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  1. I wondered what other difficulties come into play when helping people from all over the state. Did all the teams have equal resources to "compete" in the event? If not, how would we, as educators, keep students supplied with what they need to be successful, including online/digital adults?
    Thanks for your article Hui Hui.