User Generated Education

Education as it should be – passion-based.

Posts Tagged ‘experiential learning

An Educator Responsibility: Setting Up Conditions for Learners to Have Glorious, Aha Moments

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Since I have very strong convictions about what constitutes a “good” education, I am often asked how I got to this place of thinking.  I begin my story by relating to my summer camp experiences as powerful learning and my school ones as being a big, long blur.  The power of hands-on, experiential, and authentic learning was reinforced during my senior year of my undergraduate studies.  I took an outdoor education course.  As a requirement for the course, we were asked to be counselors at an outdoor education center, where students from local public schools spend five days at the residential center.  My co-counselor, Eric, and I were given a 6th grade group.

It was an amazing, life changing experience for me; and hopefully for the kids in our group.  All of the learning activities we did had experiential components.  We learned biology by walking through a stream and collecting water samples to view under a microscope.

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We learned history by visiting an old, local cemetery to study the family lineage and by making our own butter and ice cream like the pioneers did.  I keep thinking how engaging and exciting these learning activities were and continual wondered why public school couldn’t be like this.  These were all glorious, aha moments, but the biggest glorious, aha moment occurred for me when we spent an afternoon doing the team building course.  The group worked well together as is evident in this photo:


One of the last activities was the porthole. The Porthole is constructed by suspending a tire between poles or trees. The objective is to cross from one side of the porthole to the other. The group must create a plan that takes participant physical ability and size to lift, pass, and spot participants in order to get them through. See for more information.


The biggest challenge of The Porthole is getting the last person through as there is no one to boost that person up to get through The Porthole.  Darla was a member of the group.  She had some developmental disabilities and was larger, older than the rest of the group.  The members of the group didn’t make fun of her, but she was a bit invisible to them.  Flash back to The Porthole.  Not unexpectedly, the group got every through The Porthole leaving Darla on the original side by herself.  One of the smallest kids in the group, Henry, quickly noticed and said, “I can help you, Darla.”  He asked the group to pass him back through The Porthole to help her.  He then got on his hands and knees and instructed Darla to stand on his back so she could reach The Porthole for the others to grab her from the other side.  Henry was half of Darla’s size.  I could see the pain on his face as she stood on his back, but he cheered her on as she did so, “You can do it, Darla.  Go for it, Darla.”  This act of generoisty from Henry was so touching that after the kids finished, I asked to take a moment and went off into the woods to cry.

The epilogue of this experience came in the form of a letter from Darla (with corrected spelling):

Dear Jackie:

Thank you for a great week at Stone Valley.  At first I was nervous and scared but I could tell you knew that I was.  You and Eric taught me lots of things I didn’t know. You taught use how to play games and find nature right under own feet.  You have taught use so much neat things that I can go on writing forever.  But the best thing I like about your and Eric is that you are both wonderful counselors and no one can take your place in our family group.

I hate it when we had to leave.  I wish our family group can stay there forever, but all have to go sometime.

I didn’t do much over the weekend.  The only thing I was doing was thinking about what we did at Stone Valley.

Lots of Love,


. . . concrete evidence of glorious, aha moments experienced by Darla.

The core of my educational philosophy and pedagogical creed is that all educators should attempt to develop the conditions for glorious, aha moments for their learners every time they meet with them.  So a simple, powerful question all educators can ask to determine his or her effectiveness in teaching a lesson is, “Did my learners experience aha, glorious moments during the instructional activities?”

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

January 21, 2014 at 6:25 pm

TED for Teens or Ted-Ed Talks As They Should Be

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If I were to subtitle this blog post, it would be something like “reclaiming science education” or “making TED talks palatable and very tasty for young people.”

Cafe Scientifique

I recently become the Cafe Scientifique coordinator for Santa Fe, NM.  I realized after the first session that this program is what TED talks could or should be especially for teens and tweens.  The background and description of Cafe Scientifique . .

Science Café programs engage scientists and the public in conversation on interesting science topics in a highly social setting. The model was established in England, and its popularity led to rapid spread in various forms throughout the world. It has proven very effective in engaging people from all walks of life with science and scientists  In 2007, Science Education Solutions, with a grant from the National Science Foundation, began an experiment to see if the model could be adapted to appeal to high school teenagers. The program, Café Scientifique New Mexico, has proven highly popular with teens in four towns of diverse character in northern New Mexico for the same reason as adult programs: the blend of engaging with scientists informally on interesting science topics and the high degree of social interaction. Café Scientifique New Mexico provides teens a new perspective on the nature of science and a picture of scientists as real people leading interesting lives. The program has proven to be a rich—and fun!—complement to the science they learn in the classroom.

The Cafes contain the following elements:

  • Scientist Talk – about 20 minutes
  • Teen Interview of the Scientist
  • Q & A with the Scientist
  • Hands-On Activity
  • Food

Scientist Talk

Real scientists are invited to do the talks.  Real is this case means that they are practicing scientists working in labs, research settings, etc. Here are 10 Tips for Finding Great Teen Café Presenters and a blog post Preparing Scientists for a Teen Café.

Once selected, scientists are prepped about how to give a talk to teens.  They are given some guidelines – see Cafe Scientifique New Mexico Guidelines for Presenters.  Scientist presenters are also asked to give a dry run with the program organizers who offer feedback about how to better present to the teens.

The Café Scientifique model has proven to be effective for communicating science to a high school teen audience. Their process for achieving effective science communication between scientist-presenters and teens focuses on overcoming the “information deficit” mode of presentation that most scientists are trained for. Their coaching stresses that effective science communication requires engagement on a personal level that meets the audience where it is in terms of both prior knowledge and social context, while making connections to the teens’ daily lives. (


Teen Interview of the Scientist

One of the teen leaders (for more information about the Cafe Scientifique teen leaders, see often interviews the scientist. They develop their own questions and use those to interview the scientist.

Example Interviews:

Phillip, a high school sophomore at the Santa Fe Indian School, interviews Nina Lanza, a geologist working on the Mars Curiosity Mission.

Youth leaders conducted an interview with Dr Morton’s pathway to becoming a neuroscientist and zombie expert.  Listen to a lively interview of Dr. Russell Morton, neuroscientist and zombie expert:

Q & A with the Scientist

The teens are encouraged to ask questions of the scientist.  Some of the scientist presenters ask questions during their presentation, but time is always provided at the end of the talk for the participating teens to ask questions of the scientist. Many of the scientists also engage in more informal Q & A sessions following the more formal presentation.


Hands-On Activity

Typically as a follow-up to the talk (although sometimes it is done as an introduction to the talks), teens engage in some hands-on activities that support the concepts presented by the scientist.  A sampling of these activities can be found at



To increase the social nature, food is provided with time given for socializing and eating.


Past Cafes and Scientists

Developmental Appropriate for Teens

The problem of using guest speakers or videos like TED and Khan Academy is that they ask the teens-students to be passive recipients of content.  This often is not the best method for learning especially for today’s learners who are used to grabbing content from online venues whenever they choose.  The Cafes are more appropriate for teens (and many adults) because:

  • The talk is limited to 20 minutes to lecture.
  • The slides developed by the scientists are visual heavy and slide light.
  • The teens are encouraged to develop and ask questions of the scientists.
  • Hands-on, multi-sensory activities are used to support the science concepts.
  • Food and interactive activities encourage socializing – a huge need and desire of teens.

 Another Model: MIT Blossoms

Another model for using scientist talks with hands-on interactives to engage and immerse students in science is the MIT Blossoms.

The BLOSSOMS Video Library anytime to browse and download lessons to use in your classroom. Every lesson is a complete resource that includes video segments, a teacher’s guide, downloadable hand-outs and a list of additional online resources relevant to the topic. We carefully craft each BLOSSOMS lesson to make your classroom come alive. Each 50-minute lesson builds on math and science fundamentals by relating abstract concepts to the real world. The lessons intersperse video instruction with planned exercises that engage students in problem solving and critical thinking, helping students build the kind of gut knowledge that comes from hands-on experience.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

January 9, 2014 at 1:52 am

Creating Engaging Curriculum: A More Perfect World

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Recently I revised my A More Perfect World curriculum unit.  I reformatted it to a Weebly website for ease of access and update the links and web tools.


This unit is driven by several of my core beliefs regarding effective instructional practices:

  • Reading as Choice: Reading is such an amazing gift we have as humans and way too many students don’t like to read for their own pleasure and learning.  Reading engagement and enjoyment are increased when students are permitted to choose what they read. No single practice inspires my students to read as much as the opportunity to choose their own books (Becoming a Classroom of Readers).
  • Choices in Learning Content:  Choice in how the content is learned increases engagement and intrinsic motivation.  Students should be given choices as to how to learn the content.  Content should be presented to learners in a variety of ways: readings, videos, graphics with the only expectation that they learn it in a way that works for them.  This is in line with Universal Design for Learning Principle: Provide Multiple Means of Representation.
  • Choices in Expressing Knowledge and Competency: Choice in how the learner demonstrates his or her knowledge of the content increases engagement and intrinsic motivation.  Learners should be given a choice as to how they want to and can express what they learned about the content based on their own styles, interests, and strengths.  This is in line with the Universal Design for Learning Principle: Provide Multiple Means of Action and Expression.
  • Student Interest: Incorporating student interests into the curriculum increases relevancy.  Curiosity and thus learning thrive when connected to and/or emergent from contexts which are familiar and meaningful to the learner (The Importance of Engaging Students’ Interest in their Learning).   In this case, this unit incorporate the current interest of many young people in dystopian fiction as well as gives them opportunities to delve into their own interest areas throughout the lessons.
  • Project-Based Learning: Project-based learning is a dynamic approach to teaching in which students explore real-world problems and challenges, simultaneously developing cross-curriculum skills. Because project-based learning is filled with active and engaged learning, it inspires students to obtain a deeper knowledge of the subjects they’re studying. Research also indicates that students are more likely to retain the knowledge gained through this approach far more readily than through traditional textbook-centered learning. (Why Teach with Project-Based Learning?: Providing Students With a Well-Rounded Classroom Experience).  For more about project-based learning, see my curated Scoopit on Project-Based Learning and my post Is It Project-Based Learning, Maker Education or Just Projects?
  • Drawing on Learners’ Idealism; Desire for a Better World: Many young people think about ways to create a better world. Idealism is a developmental milestone of adolescence. Young adolescents are idealistic at this stage, and they are quick to point out what is fair and what is not.  Their idealism pours into asking questions about the meaning of life, questions for which there are not definitive answers. They also become inwardly reflective about who they are and the roles they play. It is a great stage of life and a great opportunity and challenge to meet the needs of these young adolescents (Adolescent Development). These ideas should be integrated into the learning setting.
  • Arts Integration:  Arts integration is highly effective in engaging and motivating students. The arts provide students multiple modes for demonstrating learning and competency. A rich array of arts skills and intellectual processes provide multiple entry points for students linking to content in other subject areas. Similarly, arts instruction is deepened through integration of content from the other subject areas. It enlivens the teaching and learning experience for entire school communities. At its best, arts integration is transformative for students, teachers and communities. The imaginations and creative capacities of teachers and students are nurtured and their aspirations afforded many avenues for realization and recognition (Creating an Arts Integration School).

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

December 29, 2013 at 11:06 pm

STEAM and Maker Education: Inclusive, Engaging, Self-Differentiating

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The maker movement has the opportunity to transform education by inviting students to be something other than consumers of education. They can become makers and creators of their own educational lives, moving from being directed to do something to becoming self-directed and independent learners. Increasingly, they can take advantage of new tools for creative expression and for exploring the real world around them. They can be active participants in constructing a new kind of education for the 21st-century, which will promote the creativity and critical thinking we say we value in people like Steve Jobs. Learning by Making: American kids should be building rockets and robots, not taking standardized tests

When a kid builds a model rocket, or a kite, or a birdhouse, she not only picks up math, physics, and chemistry along the way, she also develops her creativity, resourcefulness, planning abilities, curiosity, and engagement with the world around her. But since these things can’t be measured on a standardized test, schools no longer focus on them. As our public educational institutions continue down this grim road, they’ll lose value as places of learning. That may seem like a shame, but to the members of the growing DIY schooling movement, it’s an irresistible opportunity to roll up their sleeves. School for Hackers: The do-it-yourself movement revives learning by doing.

For the past two weekends, I facilitated a three part/three day maker education workshop, From Puppets to Robots, at the Santa Fe Children’s Museum.  It was a small group ranging from a pair of 7 year girl twins to a few 8th grade boys.  All of the parents and kids expressed extreme satisfaction – see the photos below for some evidence of their involvement.

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Some of the reasons I believe the maker workshops were successful include (list still in progress):

  1. Maker activities are multi-sensory, hands-on, and concrete.
  2. The learning activities were scaffolded.  Participants were provided with basic skills during initial activities which led to success in the following, more advanced activities.
  3. The participants were taught and given examples of the processes involved.
  4. The focus was on the process not the product – the how-to’s were demonstrated rather than the end product.
  5. Asking a lot of questions and asking for help were normalized.
  6. Failure was looked at as “just information.”
  7. Peer tutoring and explanations were encouraged.

I have always been a hands-on, experiential educator, but I made a few observations about STEAM and Maker Education during the workshops over the past few weekends.  Maker Education, as I observed, has the following characteristics:

  • Participation is driven by intrinsic motivation
  • Maker education lends itself to 100% engagement by 100% participants almost 100% of the time.
  • Maker education is self-differentiating.
  • Age levels and gender are blurred; does not affect participation, engagement, and interest.
  • Maker education activities are multidisciplinary and authentic.
  • Maker education reinforces and teaches resilience.

Participation is driven by intrinsic motivation.

Maker education participants (of all ages) are driven by intrinsic motivation.  Using one’s own creativity and talents, the opportunity for self expression, and creating a product of one’s own are inherently motivating.  Extrinsic motivators such bribing through grades, rewards, and/or praise are not needed to coax individuals into participation in maker, DIY, STEAM activities.

Maker education lends itself to 100% engagement by 100% participants almost 100% of the time.

Due to similar factors as described above, I observed that all of the young people were engaged most of the time.  With maker activities being centered on interest-driven learning, a flow state of participation often results.  “Flow is the mental state of operation in which a person performing an activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energized focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity. In essence, flow is characterized by complete absorption in what one does” ( Time blurs as participants engaged in creativity, innovation, and problem-solving.  Only a few times did any of the kids ask about the time, and this occurred towards the end of three hour sessions.

Maker education is self-differentiating.

The nature of the maker workshop activities permitted the participants to differentiate the activities for themselves.  Some of the kids picked up the processes being demonstrated as well as had visions about what they wanted to create faster than some of the other kids.  They were given the materials, permission, and encouragement to move forward independently.  Other kids needed a little bit more instruction and scaffolding.  The two facilitators then could provide them with the extra instruction.  Peer assistance and instruction also came naturally in this exploratory environment of experimentation, testing, revising, producing.

Age levels and gender are blurred.  Age and gender does not affect participation, engagement, and interest.

The traditional education model is to group kids by manufacture date, in other words in their cohort groups by age and date of birth.  As stated above, the maker workshop I facilitated over the past few weekends was open to kids from age 7 to 13.  The group ended up with 7 year old twin girls and a few 13 year old boys with a mix of ages and genders in the middle. Interestingly, the kids, themselves, made no comments about this diverse group.  It didn’t seem to phase them at all.

Because the nature of maker workshop activities being self-differentiating, the age and gender did not make a difference.  All ages and both genders were able to complete the tasks presented to them.  Because there were no expectations regarding the quality or types products, they all were successful in producing some form of the projects.  In fact, the younger girls came up with some robot construction strategies that were “copied” and co-opted by some of the older boys.

The benefits of diverse groups in maker education (and other educational settings, too) cannot be understated.  Diversity of groups often leads to broader perspectives, deeper problem solving, and richer products.  Diversity is enhanced through multi-age, mixed gender groups.  As David Kelley, founder of IDEO consultants and Stanford’s Hasso Plattner Institute of Design, notes, “Diversity is the number one thing that correlates to better innovation” (

Maker education activities are multidisciplinary and authentic.

Maker education activities make for a beautiful integration of STEAM.  For example, while the kids participated in the From Puppets to Robots, I noted the following disciplines being addressed:

  • Science:  Participants explored physics through movement, fulcrums, weight loads, light.
  • Technology:  Participants deepened their understanding of robotics through online simulations related to what they were building in real life.
  • Engineering: Several of the workshop projects required the participants to use engineering skills – building a robotic arm that could pick up objects, building a 3D self-standing robot prototype.
  • Arts:  Visual arts were used as participants created their shadow puppets and storyboarded their shadow puppets shoes; as they drew out their 2D robot prototypes and then built their robot prototypes.  Language arts became important when the participants wrote their shadow puppet stories and when they were continually asked to orally describe their projects to the rest of the group.
  • Mathematics:  Math concepts were needed to measure, cut, and build all of their prototypes.

Maker education reinforces and teaches resilience.

I wrote about resilience in Resilience: The Other 21st Century Skills. . .

Resiliency is not one specific thing, but a combination of skills and positive attributes that people gain from their life experiences and relationships. These attributes help them solve problems, cope with challenges and bounce back from disappointments. Personal resiliency is about our assets – the resources, attributes and skills that help us recover from negative events or feelings, cope with challenges and adversity, and look after ourselves when things aren’t going well. (Kids Can Cope: Parenting at Home and at School)

I realized the power of maker education to build resilience during one of the workshop sessions.  Eight year-old Dylan was building his robot prototype.  He constructed the robot’s leg and selected a heavy can for the body.  The legs couldn’t hold up the heavy body.  Dylan became teary-eyed insisting that this what he wanted.  Both his mother and I stressed that part of prototyping is using failure as information about what is possible/not possible, what needs to change.  We assisted him in choosing new materials for the robot body.  He ended up building a robot prototype that worked!  His mother told me “on the side” that Dylan has difficulty dealing with frustration when things don’t work out as he planned.  Hopefully, that day he received a small lesson on tenacity and resilience.

Obviously, I am a strong advocate of Maker Education.  For me, it is a natural way of teaching and learning.  I understand that this is a different model, way of thinking for many educators.  It is a risk to make changes in the classroom, but I believe that educators want what’s best for their students.  I “preach” to my pre- and in-service teachers to try one small change.  In this case, I would ask, “What are you already doing well in your classroom that could be further enhanced with some maker activities?” and then reinforce, “Just try it.  What is the worse thing that could happen? It fails and you move on.  What is the best thing that could happen? It adds to the students’ learning experience resulting in increased engagement and deeper understanding of the concepts.”

Resources to Learn More About Maker Education:

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

July 23, 2013 at 11:48 pm

Taking the Learners and Technology Outdoors

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I began my career as an educator as an outdoor educator.  Now I teach educational technology.  Given both the ever increasing sedentary and indoor lives of kids and the advancement of technology, the time is ripe to combine the two.

Current and recurring themes that guide my ideas about what constitutes a “good” education include:

  • Learning should extend beyond the classroom walls.
  • Outdoor education is good for students and adults.
  • Mobile technology is engaging and interesting; and can create authentic and relevant learning experiences.
  • Mobile learning should be just that – mobile.

Moving Learning Beyond the Classroom Walls

“[In traditional education]…the school environment of desks, blackboards, a small school yard was supposed to suffice…There was no demand that the teacher should become intimately acquainted with the conditions of the local community, physical, historical, economic, occupational etc. in order to utilize them as educational resources.” 

- John Dewey, Experience and Education, 1938

The Council for Learning Outside of the Classroom provides the following rationale for taking learning beyond the classroom walls:

Learning outside the classroom is about raising young people’s achievement through an organized, powerful approach to learning in which direct experience is of prime importance.

This is not only about what we learn, but most importantly, how and where we learn. It is about improving young people’s understanding, skills, values, personal and social development and can act as a vehicle to develop young people’s capacity and motivation to learn.

Real-world learning brings the benefits of formal and informal education together and reinforces what good educationalist have always known: that the most meaningful learning occurs through acquiring knowledge and skills through real-life, practical or hands-on activities.

There is a wealth of evidence which clearly demonstrates the benefits for young people’s learning and personal development outside the classroom. In summary, learning outside the classroom:

  • tackles social mobility, giving children new and exciting experiences that inspire them to reach their true potential. These real world experiences raise aspirations, equipping young people with the skills they need to become active and responsible citizens and shape a fit and motivated workforce.
  • addresses educational inequality, re-motivating children who do not thrive in the traditional classroom environment, such as those from disadvantaged backgrounds or with Special Educational Needs. Young people who experience learning outside the classroom as a regular part of their school life benefit from increased self esteem, and become more engaged in their education both inside and outside the classroom walls.
  • supports improved standards back INSIDE the classroom, raising attainment, reducing truancy and improving discipline. Learning outside the classroom is known to contribute significantly to raising standards & improving pupils’ personal, social & emotional development.

Find out more about research studies which reinforce and illustrate the wide-ranging benefits for young people on our research pages.

The Benefits of Outdoor Education

A report from the National Wildlife Federation, Back to School: Back Outside, shows how outdoor education and time is connected with wide-ranging academic benefits including:

  • Improved classroom behavior
  • Increased student motivation and enthusiasm to learn
  • Better performance in math, science, reading and social studies
  • Reduced Attention Deficit Hyperactivity Disorder (ADHD)
  • Higher scores on standardized tests (including college entrance exams)
  • Help under-resourced, low-income students perform measurably better in school


Mobile Learning in the Outdoors = Authentic, Engaging Learning

Mobile Learning in the Outdoors Benefits, Apps and Examples

From Expanding the Classroom with Mobile Learning:

Mobile devices can form an engaging platform for teaching and learning, with the potential to expand the realm of the classroom. Functionality and context are key considerations when selecting from the myriad of mobile-enabled web sites and applications.

Like a Swiss army knife, mobile devices and their apps can provide utility and flexibility in a compact, portable package. Among the options available are:

  • GPS and other location-based functionality
  • Video, audio, and still image capture
  • Mobile networking and collaboration
  • The ability to bridge to other tools and data
  • Scanning and data logging in the field
  • Visual and audio recognition
  • Screen readers, slow keys, text to speak, and other accessibility features

The portability and convenience provided by mobile devices enables instantaneous, contextual observations in the field or whenever spontaneous learning opportunities arise. Collecting information outside the classroom can help students hone observation and collaboration skills, reinforce topic relevancy, or provide opportunities to emulate an expert system through use of the apps.

GPS-based apps for mapping, geo-blogging, and geo-tagging are especially powerful in this regard, because they enable direct linking of observations to specific times and locations. The ability to capture, reference, and share data, multimedia, and ideas within a spatial or temporal context helps students identify broader trends and relationships, foster discussion, and develop conceptual thinking.

5 Ways to Take Technology Outdoors:

  • Mobile Devices

Mobile devices such as smartphones and tablets are powerful tools for outdoor study. Access to the Internet, a camera and geospatial data (e.g. GPS) make it easy to gather, organize and submit data from observations. Applications (apps) can be downloaded to engage students in citizen science activities, like identifying wildlife.

  • GPS Units

GPS (Global Positioning Systems) is a technology that communicates with satellites to pinpoint specific locations on Earth. GPS units are great tools for getting students outside and engaged in environmental field research and service-learning projects.

At Wisconsin’s Augusta Area School District, teacher Paul Tweed engaged his students in several projects that used GPS and GIS (Geographic Information Systems), one of which helped the Wisconsin Department of Nature Resources (DNR) track orphaned black bear cubs released into the wild.

  • Digital Cameras

Students can use digital cameras to document their local environment, track their progress on science projects, collect evidence and present their findings in the classroom.

Students at Monroe City Schools in Louisiana use tech tools like digital cameras to enhance environmental education programs at Black Bayou Lake National Wildlife Refuge.  Learn more at:

  • Digital Weather Stations

Digital weather stations are small monitoring devices put in place to collect real-time weather data. They can be installed near home, school or in nearby parks, enabling students to add weather conditions to their study of the local environment.

Students participating in outdoor education programs with NatureBridge check digital weather stations at Olympic, Yosemite and Golden Gate National Parks for weather data to add to their field research.  Learn more at:

Here is a list of apps and websites that can assist learners in becoming citizen scientists:


Links to these websites:

Outdoor activities with mobile devices: A slidedeck by Shelly Terrell

Mobile Learning in Outdoors Viewed with the SAMR Model

The SAMR model ( is being used to discuss technology integration.  The SAMR model, developed by Dr Ruben Puentedura, aims to support teachers as they design, develop and integrate learning technologies to support high levels of learning achievement and student engagement.


The guiding questions for the SAMR Ladder include:


It becomes apparent that these outdoor-based mobile learning activities can be categorized in the transformational levels of modification and redefinition as learners engage in tasks that are uniquely possible given the mobile technologies.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

April 18, 2013 at 2:44 am

Storytelling Is Not Lecturing; Lecturing is Not Storytelling

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I sit in the lecture hall with 10,000 others waiting for my new teacher to speak. I look at my cell phone and silently groan that this in going to be a long hour; as long an hour as an hour can be as is typically the case when I listen to a lecture.   She begins, “Let me tell you about Uncle Willie.”  I take a deep breath of relief and settle in to hear her story.

I came at the age of three to Grandma and my Uncle Willie in this little town in Arkansas. Uncle Willie was paralyzed on the right side. My grandmother and Uncle Willie owned a little store in town, and they needed me and my brother to work in the store. So Momma taught me to read and write, and my Uncle Willie taught me to do my times tables. He used to grab me by my clothes and hold me in front of a potbelly stove, and with a slur attendant to his condition, he’d say, “Now, Sister, I want you to do your foursies, your sevensies, your ninesies.” I learned my times tables so exquisitely even now, 60 years later, if I’m awakened after an evening of copious libation and told, “Do your twelvsies,” I’ve got my twelvsies.

I was so sure that if I didn’t learn, my Uncle Willie would grab me, open the potbelly stove, throw me in, and close the door. Of course, I found that he was so tenderhearted he wouldn’t kill a fly. One day my Uncle Willie died, and I went to Little Rock where I was met by one of America’s great rainbows in the clouds, the black lady who led the children into the high school in the late fifties in Little Rock.

She met me and said, “There is somebody who is dying to meet you.” She introduced me to this handsome black man in a three-piece suit.

When I met him, he said, “I don’t want to shake your hand. I want to hug you.”

He then said, “You know, Maya, the State of Arkansas has lost a great man in losing Willie. In the 1920s, I was the only child of a blind mother. Your Uncle Willie gave me a job in his store, paid me 10 cents a week, and taught me to do my times tables.”

I asked him, “How would he do it?”

He said, “He used to grab me like this…”

Then I knew he was talking about Uncle Willie.

He said, “Because of him, I am who I am today, the mayor of Little Rock, Arkansas, first black mayor in the South.”

I look back at Uncle Willie, that crippled, black man in the South where lynching was the disorder of the day, I have no idea the range of his influence. But I know that when it looked for me like the sun wasn’t going to shine anymore, God put “a rainbow in the clouds” in the form of Uncle Willie.

I tell you my stories not to brag but to tell you about all of rainbows in my clouds.  You are the rainbows in somebody’s cloud.

. . . Maya Angelou tells the 10,000 educators who sat at her feet at the recent ASCD conference.  I exaggerated at the beginning about the expected boredom.  This would have been the case if the speaker started to lecture to me.  I knew Dr, Angelou would tell us stories and read us poetry.  She is a master of storytelling, poetry, speaking, and teaching; and the energy in the room was palatable as she spoke to us.

I am a strong advocate against the use of lecturing for teaching which I discuss in detail in Who Would Choose a Lecture as Their Primary Mode of Learning? This does not mean I am against an educator standing in front of a group of learners to give procedural directions or to tell a story to teach a concept.  I have been challenged by colleagues because I really like TED talks but many of the best TED talks tell a story.  One of the most popular Ted talks of all time was Jill Bolte Taylor’s stroke of insight who told the story of her stroke and insights about the brain due to her her stroke.

So what is it that makes stories such powerful teaching?

Stories are different. Stories have everything that facts wish they had but never will: color, action, characters, sights, smells, sounds, emotions–stuff that we can easily relate to. We can imagine ourselves doing, or not doing, or having already done, what the story describes. Stories put facts into a meaningful, and therefore memorable, context.  (

Brain Activity: Lecture versus Storytelling

It’s in fact quite simple. If we listen to a powerpoint presentation with boring bullet points, a certain part in the brain gets activated. Scientists call this Broca’s area and Wernicke’s area. Overall, it hits our language processing parts in the brain, where we decode words into meaning. And that’s it, nothing else happens.

When we are being told a story, things change dramatically. Not only are the language processing parts in our brain activated, but any other area in our brain that we would use when experiencing the events of the story are too.  (

What follows is a graph of a student’s brain activity during a given week.  The student’s brain activity, the electrodermal activity, is nearly flat-lined during classes.  Note that the activity is higher during sleep than during class.


So what happens to the brain when being told a story?

We think in narratives all day long, no matter if it is about buying groceries, whether we think about work or our spouse at home. We make up (short) stories in our heads for every action and conversation. In fact, Jeremy Hsu found [that] “personal stories and gossip make up 65% of our conversations.”

Now, whenever we hear a story, we want to relate it to one of our exiting experiences.  That’s why metaphors work so well with us. While we are busy searching for a similar experience in our brains, we activate, a part called insula, which helps us relate to that same experience of pain, joy, or disgust. (

So my advice for teachers is that next time you feel the need to convey information via a lecture, create or find a story that illustrates those concepts and tell learners that story.  All will benefit.

Storytelling is the most powerful way to put ideas into the world today.

Stories are the creative conversion of life itself into a more powerful, clearer, more meaningful experience. They are the currency of human contact. — Robert McKee


Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

March 20, 2013 at 2:16 am

Hacking the Classroom: Beyond Design Thinking

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Design Thinking is trending is some educational circles.  Edutopia recently ran a design thinking for educators workshop and I attended two great workshops at SXSWedu 2013 on Design Thinking:

Design Thinking is a great skill for students to acquire as part of their education.  But it is one process like the problem-solving model or the scientific method.   As a step-by-step process, it becomes type of box.  Sometimes we need to go beyond that box; step outside of the box.  This post provides an overview of design thinking, the problems with design thinking, and suggestions to hacking the world to go beyond design thinking.

Design Thinking

Design thinking is an approach to learning that includes considering real-world problems, research, analysis, conceiving original ideas, lots of experimentation, and sometimes building things by hand ( The following graphic was developed by Design Thinking for Educators to explain the process of design thinking:


As a further explanation of this process, here is an exercise by the d.School about how to re-design a wallet using the design process.

View this document on Scribd

Here is another take on the design thinking process as applied to learning within a community setting:

“What does it take to create education in this age of imagination?” was the theme of the following Ted talk.   Imagination, play, and social interaction become important to the learning process.

To further learn about design thinking, visit:

Problems with Design Thinking

Bruce Nussenbaum, in a Fast Company article, Design Thinking Is A Failed Experiment. So What’s Next?, discussed the benefits of design thinking but also noted it has become a type of flavor of the month for corporations.

Design Thinking broke design out of its specialized, narrow, and limited base and connected it to more important issues and a wider universe of profit and non-profit organizations. The contributions of Design Thinking to the field of design and to society at large are immense. By formalizing the tacit values and behaviors of design, Design Thinking was able to move designers and the power of design from a focus on artifact and aesthetics within a narrow consumerist marketplace to the much wider social space of systems and society. We face huge forces of disruption, the rise and fall of generations, the spread of social media technologies, the urbanization of the planet, the rise and fall of nations, global warming, and overpopulation.  Design Thinking made design system-conscious at a key moment in time.

There were many successes, but far too many more failures in this endeavor. Why? Companies absorbed the process of Design Thinking all to well, turning it into a linear, gated, by-the-book methodology that delivered, at best, incremental change and innovation.  CEOs in particular, took to the process side of Design Thinking, implementing it like Six Sigma and other efficiency-based processes (

I fear a similar outcome for design thinking within educational settings.   As I stated in the introduction, design thinking, being a type of problem-solving model, is it’s own type of box.  It attempts to solve problems via a specific process in order to come up with a new solution or product.  John Media, in If Design’s No Longer the Killer Differentiator, What Is?, emphasizes the limited perspective that design thinking can create:

Designers create solutions. But artists create questions — the deep probing of purpose and meaning that sometimes takes us backward and sideways to reveal which way “forward” actually is. The questions that artists make are often enigmatic, answering a why with another why. Because of this, understanding art is difficult: I like to say that if you’re having difficulty “getting” art, then it’s doing its job.

Paul Pangaro, a technology executive, who combines technical depth, marketing and business acumen, and passion for designing products that serve the cognitive and social needs of human beings, further critiques design thinking in his video, The Limitations of Design Thinking.

If we stop with design thinking we won’t solve those problems that those in design thinking say they want to solve.    Paul Pangaro

Hacking the World

All of this leads to the question of what types of learning in today’s classroom would help students acquire knowledge, skills, passions, and attitudes for living, working, and playing in today’s world.  Design thinking is one process for creative problem solving, but to really survive and thrive in a world of such constant and rapid change, kids need to go beyond design thinking and be able to hack their world.  Not only is it important to be able to use a creative process to solve problems, it is equally important to be able to identify problems to solve. As humans living within systems that are safe and comfortable for them using the tools and strategies that are familiar to them, it becomes difficult for many to step outside of that comfort zone to critically analyze these systems to identify problems and to discover better ways of living for themselves and for others.

Hacking is a way to do so.  Hacking can be defined as:

Hacking is research. Have you ever tried something again and again in different ways to get it to do what you wanted? Have you ever opened up a machine or a device to see how it works, research what the components are, and then make adjustments to see what now worked differently? That’s hacking. You are hacking whenever you deeply examine how something really works in order to creatively manipulate it into doing what you want.

The real reason to be a hacker is because it’s really powerful. You can do some very cool things when you have strong hacking skills. Any deep knowledge gives you great power. If you know how something works to the point that you can take control of it, you have serious power in your hands. Most of all, you have the power to protect yourself and those you care about (Hacker High School).

In an NPR article, At This Camp, Kids Learn To Question Authority (And Hack It), Michael Garrison Stuber, whose daughter participated in the camp, stated:

“Why would I do this?” he asks, while laughing. “Fundamentally the world is about systems. And we work within systems all the time, but sometimes systems are broken, and we need to be able to subvert them. And that is a life skill I absolutely want her to be able to have.”

In developing hacking as a skill, an attitude, and/or as an approach to construct and de-construct the world, it is more than just hacking in terms of computer science.  In order to hack the world, we need to tear it apart, deconstruct it and analyze its components parts and how they operate in relation to one another within various systems.  This is a mental, social, emotional, and whenever possible, a physical process.

The following icebreakers are designed for web design, but they could also be used to establish a climate of thinking outside of preexisting mindsets which, in turn, becomes a goal of hacking: to develop alternative mindsets.


To get a broader perspective on helping young people become white hat hackers (folks who enjoy thinking of innovative new ways to make, break and use anything to create a better world), see:

Although I am currently looking towards hacking as a way to facilitate creative thinking and positive (world) change, it also has the potential to become a more standardized process as is the issue with design thinking.  Hacking, but its very nature, should force learners and learning to the limits, but attempts to scale any movement can inadvertently and unintentional create the type of standardized, procedural system it is trying to avoid.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

March 11, 2013 at 12:24 am

The Internet & Social Networking for Enhancing Social-Emotional Learning: Presentation Materials

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Here are some resources that support The Internet & Social Networking for Enhancing Social-Emotional Learning presentation.

Introductory Video

Slide Deck

Technology Enhanced Social-Emotional Activities


The Internet and Social Networking for Social Emotional Learning: eBook


Mightbell of SEL Resources


Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

March 4, 2013 at 1:38 am

Ice Breaker: What Do You Wonder About?

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The Four Quadrant Poster is the newest activity added to Technology-Enhanced Social Emotional Activities.  I love using this activity as an icebreaker for students to get to know one another and to provide me, as the educator, with a lot of information about student interests, passions, and thoughts.


  • To provide a forum for learners to explore and identify their learning interests, strengths, and personal wonderment.
  • To help learners get to know one another.
  • To provide educators with diagnostic information about each of their learners.


  • Hands-on: One 8″ x 8″ piece of cardboard or plywood per learner, lots of paint and paint brushes; paper and markers
  • Technology-Based: Google Presentation doc shared so each learner can each have a slide; Internet access to find images and/or mobile devices so learners can take images.


  • Explain to learners that they will be creating a four quadrant poster that includes images or symbols that represent the following:
    • Quadrant One – The thing you do best
    • Quadrant Two – Best learning experience ever
    • Quadrant Three – The most fun thing you’ve ever done
    • Quadrant Four – One thing you wonder about
  • The following slide can be used as a template.


  • For the hands-on version, provide learners with poster board or plywood and paints/brushes.
  • Here are some examples:


Fifth grader Marc believes he is best at writing, finds art to be his best learning experience, being with girls to be the most fun and also wonders about girls :)


Second grader, Jeff believes he is best at computers and finds computers to be his best learning experience. Playing with friends is his most fun thing and he wonders about sunsets.

  • Once done, tell learners that they will then present their posters to their peers.  To prepare for this sharing phase, distribute blank paper and markers.  Help learners divide paper into blocks equal to the number of students in the class and to put names of their peers as labels for the blocks; one peer’s name per block.  Explain that as their peers share, they are to sketch into the blocks the one quadrant that they find most interesting.   See example:


  • Note/Reflection: The act of orally sharing one’s poster can be a powerful experience.  It was time for one of the fifth grade boys, John, to share his poster.  He was a blend-in-the-woodwork type of kid – not popular, not ridiculed, just kind of ignored.  He got to his fourth quadrant.  He had painted a picture of a man with a jet propelled backpack.  He stated that he wondered when humans will fly on their own.  Several of the boys at the same time spontaneously yelled out, “cool”.  The look of pleasure on John’s face when they did so was priceless.)

Technology-Based Option

  • For a technology-based option, set up a Google Presentation so that there is a slide for each learner.  Ask learners to locate or take photos to represent each quadrant.  They can use their mobile devices to take photos or find copyright available images online.  Here is an example:

  • Learners can use a Google Spreadsheet to record information about each peer’s Four Quadrant poster.

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

February 10, 2013 at 3:50 am

Experiential Mobile Learning Activities: Presentation Materials

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The Presentation Slidedeck

Website of Mobile Learning Activities


Mobile Learning Reflections

Written by Jackie Gerstein, Ed.D.

January 29, 2013 at 7:00 pm


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