Executive Briefing

1 Virtual Reality Helps Students with Disabilities

A recent issue of the Hechinger Report highlights how VR is becoming an important tool for serving students with disabilities. In Danvers (MA) Public Schools, Jeff Lieberman, director of technology, says, “VR allows students to go places and see things virtually without actually having to go there.” The district has created their own VR experiences as well as using prepackaged products such as Floreo, which helps students with autism spectrum disorders practice interacting with police officers and TSA agents. Floreo also helps students learn calming techniques through mindfulness instruction and practice those techniques in difficult places, like busy train stations. Lieberman says that VR allows students a “low-stakes opportunity to practice critical life skills.”

2 The Scientific Debate over Teens, Screens, and Mental Health

NPR reports that more teens and young adults, particularly girls and young women, are depressed and anxious than in previous years. One theory is that smartphones and digital media are partly to blame. Professor Jean Twenge of San Diego State University is the researcher most often associated with this theory. Not only does the increase in depression coincide with the introduction of the smartphone, but she also notes that teens who report spending the most time on their smartphones (five to seven hours each day) are twice as likely to report being depressed as those who use their phones for one to two hours each day. Twenge believes that social media is the primary cause of depression. Other researchers, such as Katherine Keyes, an epidemiologist at Columbia University, do not concur with Twenge’s findings. Keyes says that there isn’t a linear relationship between screen use and mental health. In the case of heavy users, smartphone use may be a symptom rather than a cause of depression. She advocates a “bidirectional” relationship among teens, screens, and mental health—teens who are already struggling are more drawn to screens and more likely to form unhealthy relationships with media. The time they spend online might make them feel worse.

3 Gesture Technology Holds Potential for K–12 Students

Google’s Project Soli uses miniature radar to detect touchless gestures. The project has been approved by the FCC, so Google can proceed with developing the technology to turn a person’s hand into a universal remote control. For schools, these motion-sensing devices can be useful for sharing screens and collaboration. Microsoft’s HoloLens AR headset can recognize hand gestures to allow users to click buttons, choose menu items, and swipe from one screen to the next. One study looked at middle- and high-school students who used a virtual chemistry lab equipped with Microsoft Kinect gesture technology. The researchers found that students using the virtual lab had improved retention and were better at solving complex lab tasks. Just as taps and swipes are consistent across touchscreens, developers will need to standardize the types of gestures that devices recognize.

4 Girls Would Do Better on STEM Tests if Exams Were Made Longer

Newsweek reports on a new study that determined girls would perform better on tests if the tests were longer. This could help close the gender gap in STEM fields. In the study published in the journal Nature Communications, researchers found that girls are better at sustaining their performance over a longer period of time than males are. Researchers looked at PISA data from 2006 to 2015 across 74 countries. Females did better on verbal reading, and males did better on math and science tests. But after two hours of tests, the gender gap was completely offset. Study co-author Matthijs Oosterveen, researcher at the Erasmus University Rotterdam, told Newsweek: “The study documents a female strength in test-taking that has largely been ignored and that deserves visibility and recognition. Gender differences in test performance in math and science have generally been perceived as a female weakness. The findings in this study could serve as a counterbalance to the gender stereotypes shaped by this perception.” Gender-balanced test scores might help governments achieve their targets in promoting gender equality in the study and pursuit of STEM subjects as careers, Oosterveen said.

(Image credit: Samsung)

5 Samsung Offers $3 Million to U.S. Public Schools Who Use STEM to “Solve for Tomorrow”

For the 10th consecutive year, Samsung has launched the annual Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest, which challenges 6th—12th grade public school students and teachers to use STEM to address issues in their communities. The contest empowers thousands of students to create innovative solutions that transform local communities. In celebration of the 10th anniversary, Samsung is increasing the prize pool by $1 million—awarding $3 million in technology and supplies to classrooms as they advance through the contests. “The issues today look a little different than when we first launched the Samsung Solve for Tomorrow Contest 10 years ago, but year after year, students and teachers rise to the challenge, tackling complex issues from climate change and disaster recovery, to the opioid crisis and school safety,” said Ann Woo, Senior Director of Corporate Citizenship at Samsun Electronics America. “As we celebrate this 10-year milestone, we reflect on how Solve for Tomorrow has transformed from an environment-focused contest into a project-based learning initiative that fosters critical thinking and creative problem solving among thousands of students across the country. We look forward to seeing how students will continue to meet the emerging challenges of a new decade.”