Saturday, February 12, 2011

Teaching Hacking to Teach STEM?

Could giving people a chance to hack* their smartphones, remotes, and Wiis get them excited about science?  I've been working on a few museum projects recently that make me think so.

STEM is an acronym that stands for Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics.  STEM is all the rage in the Governmental, Education, and Museum communities as everyone wrings their hands over the (real or perceived) decline of science and math skills in the U.S. compared to other countries.

Everyone acknowledges the importance of STEM, but how do you actually get people excited enough about science, technology, engineering, and mathematics materials so that they can discover for themselves how interesting these areas of human knowledge can be?

In the spirit of Johnny Chung Lee and his Wii system hacks, letting people play around with and experiment with the familiar yet "magical" devices around us all the time (like remote controls or Wii controllers) can be a great way to find out about STEM topics as varied as liquid crystal technology, infrared signaling, and polarization.

I'll share the efficacy of this "demystifying familiar technology" approach through project progress reports and experiences in future posts, but in the meantime grab a remote control yourself and a digital camera (still or video) or the camera in your computer or smartphone to start finding out about the (normally) invisible lightsource that makes remotes tick.  (As in the photo at the top of this post.)  Feel free to use Google if you need some help answering some of your questions --- it's meant to be fun exploration using all the tools at your disposal, not a test!

Why does your digital camera "see" the remote's light that our eyes can't?  Can you figure out a way to "decode" the various light sequences that the remote sends as "commands" to the device it works with? Why doesn't your remote just use a "visible" light source to control its devices?

Thinking about, and experimenting with, familiar objects in unfamiliar ways can be a great way to unlock one part of the STEM learning puzzle. (To "hack" it open if you like...)   Try "hacking" some familiar technologies for yourself or in your museum, and let us know what you find out in the "Comments" section below!

* By the term "hack" I mean the original benevolent definition, not the malicious, harmful sense of the word.

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