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 in that classroom in Ningxia in northwestern China 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 feature professors from universities in the United States, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Lebanon and Pakistan. Many, but not all, are in English. Some have English subtitles.
The videos have titles like “How do mosquitoes fly in the rain?” with David Hu, who teaches biology at the Georgia Institute of Technology; “The respiratory system of birds,” with Seham Tahir Musa al Bohadja, a high school teacher in Saudi Arabia; and “Measuring distances in the Milky Way,” with Roger Hajjar, an astronomer at Notre Dame University in Beirut.
“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.”
Distelhurst has used some BLOSSOMS videos in her eighth-grade class at Sugg Middle School. She also reviews the materials for the state of Florida, and some of the videos have been included in a state website of teaching resources.
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.”
Sandi Everlove, the chief learning officer for Washington STEM in Seattle, a statewide nonprofit group that advocates for high-quality science, technology, engineering and math – STEM – education, said resources like BLOSSOMS are changing schools for the better.
“To have the teacher be the sage and font of all knowledge is an antiquated way of thinking,” said Everlove, a former high school chemistry and biology teacher. “I love the idea of being able to have resources that go outside of my expertise as a teacher and outside my classroom.”
Everlove said some of the videos got students doing projects where they could apply science or math practices, and others just got discussions going. She liked the projects best, because students learn both by discussing and doing.
“That’s where you really build skill and knowledge,” she said.
Distelhurst said she uses a lot of online resources in teaching. She said she sometimes reads the BLOSSOMS teachers’ guides to prepare for classes and also uses some of the activity ideas in the lesson plans.
“It was scary at first when I saw MIT. I thought, ‘No way I’m going to understand this,”’ said Distelhurst.
But she got over that because the videos were done so clearly in ways everyone can understand.
“You need to keep on your toes with (students) or you lose them,” Distelhurst said. “If it’s something they’re interested in and you find a way to hook them, then once you’ve got them, you’ve got them.”