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Science  30 Sep 2011:
Vol. 333, Issue 6051, pp. 1840-1841
DOI: 10.1126/science.333.6051.1840

30 September 2011

Edited by Edward W. Lempinen


Successes and Speed Bumps on the Road to Wired Classrooms

Linda Roberts is a visiting scholar, AAAS Education and Human Resources.

Linda Roberts remembers well how, as a student, she struggled with geometry. Today’s interactive software makes it far easier to see and understand the concepts that challenged her, and although students today may now take such tools for granted, they represent an historic transformation in teaching and learning.

But to Roberts, one of the nation’s most influential thinkers on the policy and use of technology in the classroom, the revolution has arrived at a challenging juncture. While technology is creating exciting new ways to engage students in science-related subjects, there are wide disparities in technology usage from district to district, and many schools are cutting technology investments in response to budget pressures.

“If all you have is the chemistry textbook and, if you’re lucky, a laboratory experience once a week that may be pretty outdated, then you’re probably going to think chemistry is pretty awful,” Roberts said in a recent interview. “But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Ever since personal computers went mainstream a quarter-century ago, educators have explored how they can support learning. Now more powerful, portable computers and high-speed wireless Internet connections are giving students and teachers access to vibrant online classes and course materials, distant laboratories, and libraries around the world.

Roberts is a visiting scholar at AAAS, and in her view, the advancing technology has broad implications: It will allow for education plans tailored to the needs and interests of individual elementary and high school students. It could encourage new partnerships between universities and high schools. And it creates opportunities for informal science education and public engagement.

Roberts’ career has tracked the evolution of educational technology: As an elementary school teacher, her duties included teaching science to third-graders. She was an early adviser to the pioneering Sesame Street television program. She served as director of the Office of Educational Technology in the U.S. Department of Education during the administration of President Bill Clinton. She has served as a consultant to Apple and as a director and trustee with other companies, nonprofits, and foundations.

After serving as a senior advisor on the National Education Technology Plan released last year by the Department of Education, she joined AAAS this year to work with the Education and Human Resources division on resources for learning and teachers’ professional development.

The timing is auspicious: Educators are honing their understanding of technology as an educational tool, but economic stresses are forcing a close evaluation of the costs and effectiveness. A June report by the Center on Education Policy found that 79% of school districts reduced spending on instructional materials or technology and equipment in 2010—2011, and 64% expect funding decreases in the next year.

“When we have cost-cutting pressures,” Roberts said, “technology is often the first thing to go, which is a really poor decision.”


Roberts and many colleagues envision a future classroom that has evolved dramatically based on advances in technology and the psychology of learning. Teachers will no longer be the all-knowing “sage on the stage”; instead, they’ll be expert guides and mentors, gauging the learning styles and interests of each student and drawing from the universe of software and digital libraries to support them. Online demonstrations might supplement hands-on learning by illustrating basic concepts. More advanced high school students might be turned loose to take challenging online courses from institutions like MIT or to network with students and scientists who share their interests.

That sort of information-sharing is already showing powerful appeal in higher education, she said. When Stanford University announced recently that computer science professors would offer online, not-for-credit courses in machine-learning, artificial intelligence, and databases, the response went viral.

“One course—the one on AI—has gotten over 58,000 inquires,” Roberts said. “That’s wild. It’s very exciting... Now there are some universities that are saying: ‘Maybe we can have our students watch these lectures, and then we should use the classroom time we have in a different way.’”

While the current pressures on school technology spending are a worry, it seems likely that the investments will accelerate as the economy recovers. Meanwhile, educators are refining ideas for the best uses of technology and improving ways to assess its impact on learning.

Over the decades ahead, smart phones and digital tablets will evolve, and education will have to continually evolve, too. “It’s going to be more and more embedded,” Roberts believes. “You won’t be thinking about it the way you do now. There will be more video, more multimedia...simultaneous translations. I don’t know where all the breakthroughs will come—but I know we’ll see more breakthroughs.”

Listen to a AAAS podcast with Linda G. Roberts.


Cell Phones Offer Lessons in Risk Communication

Researchers have found no consistent link between cell phone use and the risk of developing brain cancer, but experts speaking at a recent AAAS briefing on Capitol Hill said science faces a communications challenge in dispelling the public’s lingering fears.

George M. Gray, a professor and director of the Center for Risk Science and Public Health at George Washington University, noted that concerns about cell phones have persisted in part because the public has received mixed messages. At the 7 September briefing organized by AAAS’s Office of Government Relations and supported by the Dana Foundation, Gray said people want to understand both the cause of the concern and “how big a problem” they face in assessing health risks.

Radiofrequency electromagnetic energy, such as the waves emitted by cell phones, clearly do not damage DNA in cells, which, were it true, might in turn cause cancer. According to the U.S. National Cancer Institute, studies so far “have not shown a consistent link between cell phone use and cancers of the brain, nerves, or other tissues of the head or neck.”

But the International Agency for Research on Cancer classified such radiofrequency fields as “possibly carcinogenic,” based on an increased incidence of glioma, a malignant brain cancer. That classification represented “the weakest result they could come to,” without clear evidence to disprove a connection, Gray said, yet the terminology may confuse people.

Adding confusion has been the fact that different types of studies have yielded different results about the overall effects of cell phone use, said Nora Volkow, director of the U.S. National Institute on Drug Abuse. Studies examining cognitive abilities, cerebral blood flow, or the brain’s electrical activity before and after cell phone exposure have been inconsistent.

Volkow’s research has revealed increased brain glucose metabolism following cell phone use, but she stressed that it is unclear whether this change is harmful. Amid uncertainty, she suggested minimizing risks by using hands-free devices, sending text messages, selecting phones with antennas at the bottom, and limiting children’s use of cell phones. Additional research is needed to clarify the long-term effects of cell phone use, she said.

Science Policy

Progress at Risk in Polarized Congress

Fierce insistence on party loyalty has changed the U.S. legislative process in fundamental ways that make compromise on tough issues much more challenging, former and current House members told researchers who have left their labs to work for a year in Washington.

During an 8 September orientation session for the 2011—2012 class of AAAS Science & Technology Policy Fellows, the largest in the program’s history, former Republican congressman Mickey Edwards said the focus has shifted decidedly away from building consensus and solving problems. Now, he said, there’s a new driving force: “How do you win, how do you defeat the other guy?”

The combative climate has implications for the U.S. research agenda at a time when science investment is already threatened by substantial funding cuts. That raises a risk that the United States will scale back its ambitions, at a cost to the economy and the future of Americans, said U.S. Representative Rush Holt (D—New Jersey).

“This is a country that has never said, ‘We’re not going to work to make the next generation better,’” said Holt, a physicist and former AAAS S&T Policy Fellow.

Edwards is a former member of the House GOP leadership who represented Oklahoma’s 5th Congressional District between 1977 and 1993. Both parties are to blame, he said, for changes in congressional procedures that have made compromise more difficult. For example, he said, both parties should have equal representation on the House Rules Committee, which sets the ground rules for floor debates.

Holt suggested that the legislative climate also needs improvement. He urged the current class of Fellows to help reinforce the idea that “investment” is more than a code word for wasteful spending.

“You’re needed to help people throughout the government understand the positive role that the government can play,” he said. In that way and others, the Fellows can help “recapture the truly American characteristic that we’re about progress and we get there by thinking like scientists.”

Since 1973, the S&T Fellowships have sent more than 2300 scientists and engineers to work in Congress and nearly 20 executive branch agencies and departments, sharing their scientific perspective while learning first-hand about the workings of government.

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