Jin Kim Montclare is a professor of chemical and biomolecular engineering at the Polytechnic Institute of New York University. She contributed this article to LiveScience's Expert Voices: Op-Ed & Insights.
Society is squarely in the midst of a technological revolution. The answers to almost every question are available on the Internet, accessed at the touch of a finger — or even by voice — and an individual can interact with anyone else around the globe, easily developing social connections enabled by technology.
Web browsing and interactive social networking are both effective methods for gleaning information and learning about the world, and they are an increasingly important part of everyday life.
Although there is a fledgling movement to incorporate those forms of learning into the classroom, they are more often obstructed by teaching professionals, especially in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) education.
Most educators have a long-held set of expectations: They expect to impart lessons based on a strict syllabus or curriculum, and students are expected to absorb those lessons. Within that traditional scenario, Web browsing and social media usage are viewed as mere distractions, and students are asked to turn off their electronic devices and refrain entirely from using them in the classroom.
Although many would argue that the STEM disciplines have been taught quite efficiently in that way for hundreds of years, there is room for improvement, and I maintain that new forms of learning can be integrated — imaginatively and effectively — in any classroom.
For years, I taught university-level and high school STEM courses in the traditional manner, pitting myself against the students as they used laptops, smartphones and other electronic devices during class.
Yet, during the course of my scholarly research, I began to embrace technological and social developments, which were increasing my knowledge base tremendously. Gradually, my thoughts on STEM education and classroom practices changed, and I became intent upon incorporating the Web and social media into my lessons.
I began with outreach efforts to a high school in Brooklyn, N.Y., where I focused on a group greatly underrepresented in the STEM fields — young women, many of whom were ethnic minorities or economically disadvantaged.
Along with my graduate and undergraduate students, I developed "Lewis Dots (opens in new tab)," an iPad app that helps users visualize and learn about molecular chemistry. It was a quantifiable success, and my collaborators and I published our findings from the classroom experience in the Journal of Chemical Education in May 2012. We subsequently added a blogging component to the technology-enabled chemistry course, thus facilitating student engagement both in and out of the classroom.
After meeting with success in a secondary-school setting, I began implementing technology in the undergraduate and graduate courses I taught. Because my students already possessed smartphones, laptops and tablets, I chose to use the social media platform Twitter to engage with them.
I required every participant in my undergraduate genetics and graduate-level materials chemistry seminar course to use Twitter to communicate with me, and we created hashtags to identify course-related messages. I assigned class problems via the platform, using readily accessible links, and within the classroom, their devices became a conduit for lecture materials. I also engaged them outside of class time by submitting "Twit quizzes" — questions linked to Google Docs relating to their reading assignments — which they completed over the weekend.
These small, easily implemented steps really changed how they engaged with me — and with science — both in and out of the classroom.
Twitter allowed me to seamlessly deliver material and provided my students with a fun, comfortable way to interact directly with me — and with one another. Young people have already fully embraced social media, and it makes sense for those seeking to connect with this demographic to embrace it as well.
When technology becomes an integral part of the classroom, both teachers and students undeniably benefit. I'm proud to be educating a generation of students amply prepared for the technology-rich future that awaits them.
The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher. This article was originally published on LiveScience.com.