“Respecting people’s learning styles puts the student at the center of the learning experience, which is where he or she should be.” – Lauren Aguirre, USA
One question I love to ask when I interview people for Daily Edventures is about a teacher – or another hero – that made a difference in their learning.I always find it fascinating how the actions of one person – even a small gesture – can make a dramatic difference in someone else’s life.
For Lauren Aguirre, director of digital media for PBS’s award-winning, well-known and well-loved NOVA, one teacher made a huge difference in how she viewed education. “One of my favorites was my third grade teacher, Mrs. Syphers,” says Aguirre. “Besides being an excellent explainer, she was also great at individualizing instruction and respecting kids’ differences. For example, she figured out that I was pretending I didn’t know how to read because I wanted reading to be my own, private activity. She let me read, literally, in the closet, until I felt comfortable reading in public. She also let me work on math problems under my desk. Respecting people’s learning styles puts the student at the center of the learning experience, which is where he or she should be.”
And while Aguirre creates programs, initiatives, and technology that are intended for broad use, she ensures the NOVA digital presence is one that engages her audience individually. She does this through the creation of innovative content and audience engagement, including online adventures, 360-degree panoramas, interactive television viewing experiences, web-original video, podcasts, sharable content, and an active social media presence.
Today, NOVA is launching a brand new app for the Windows 8 Store: NOVA Elements. NOVA Elements allows users to select protons, neutrons and electrons to “build” elements, get a 3D view of complicated compounds (like caffeine), and even watch a two-hour NOVA special on the elements.
“With the NOVA Elements app, we’ve shown that you can turn what is traditionally a very dry subject, one that often causes kids to stare out the window, into an engaging game that highlights the relevance of the periodic table to everyday life,” says Aguirre. “It’s not news to any educator that connectedness and fun are central to effective educational experiences. NOVA is just offering cutting edge educators the tools to easily integrate media and science into the classroom.“
Check out the new NOVA Elements app, and enjoy today’s Daily Edventure with Lauren Aguirre.
What drew you to the field of education? Why is it important to you?
Both my parents are teachers, so it’s what I grew up with. I’ve also always loved science and storytelling. Being a science journalist connects those two areas. Working for NOVA, I have the enormous privilege of figuring out creative new ways to explain how things work—whether it’s in video, text, audio, or interactive form—and then sharing that content with a large audience.
How have you applied technology in innovative ways to support your work?
Besides the app, I think the most innovative project we’re building is NOVA Labs, which is a platform for teens to get involved in real science and engineering projects. We currently have four labs on a range of topics, from sun, to clouds, to energy, to RNA. What they all have in common is a research activity that takes real data and shows kids how to work with that data to understand the science, or even to contribute to the science. So, for example, the RNA Lab is a game that teaches kids how to fold RNA—and when they get good enough, they get the chance to build molecules that might someday be used to treat cancer, or fight viruses. Labs give students access to a world of digital data, and surrounds it with rich media and explanatory video that give the topic relevance and context.
In your opinion, how has the use of apps, cellphones, and mobile devices changed? And your work?
Obviously, apps and mobile devices can be major distractors. When you’re learning something hard that takes sustained concentration, it’s so much easier to decide to take a break when you’re using the very same device to study as you are to play games. And then your concentration is broken and you have to start over. The more complex the task you’re working on, the longer it takes to get back in the groove. That said, mobile devices and apps are here to stay. Our challenge as educators is to give students educational experiences on those devices that are satisfying and rewarding enough that they don’t keep looking for excuses to do something else. That doesn’t mean the learning won’t take effort, but it does mean that students should get an immediate sense of what they’re achieving, and why it matters. The advent of mobile devices has changed my work profoundly. Now, no matter what topic we’re covering or how, imagining what the experience will be like for someone on a mobile device goes at or near the top of the list of items to consider.
In your view, what is the most exciting innovation happening in education today?
The web has come of age to the point that it’s now possible to integrate many of the aspects kids need to become truly engaged in learning. When NOVA went out and asked teens what they needed to make learning more interesting, teens said they wanted to participate in real science projects and make a difference. They want to know that what they’re doing matters, they want to work socially or collaboratively, and they want to be competent and autonomous. This is the platform we’re building with NOVA Labs. That said, it still takes talented educators to help students make the most of this tool or any other. That is why we offer professional development opportunities as well as lesson advice to teachers for classroom integration.
Is there a 21st century skill (critical thinking and problem solving, communication, collaboration, or creativity and innovation) that you are most passionate about? Why?
I’m most passionate about communication, because in my experience being a good communicator forces you to understand very deeply what you’re talking about; so for a student who’s asked to communicate about what they’ve learned, it’s a great test for them to evaluate if they really understand the topic. It’s also extremely important, probably now more than ever, that you’re able to communicate what you know. We need bright young people to come up with solutions to the many problems we as a society face, but if they can’t get others on board to support and invest in their solutions, we’ll have missed out on many opportunities. So many good ideas go by the wayside because their inventor didn’t know how to explain it to others. (And it’s probably also true that many mediocre ideas move forward because someone was very good at marketing them!)
If you could give one educational tool to every child in the world, what would it be? Why?
I would give them an educational experience, of any sort, that allows them to feel competent and successful. I believe that a child’s ability to learn depends profoundly on their belief in themselves—that they can succeed. Without that basic foundation, no technical tool will make a difference. But we can certainly use tools, especially interactive experiences, to find ways to individualize learning so that kids can feel successful and gradually work their way up to mastery.
What is your country doing well currently to support education?
My state of Massachusetts must be doing something right, because our students perform well against students around the country, and even around the world. However, I believe that our focus on testing has a pernicious and insidious effect. I’ve seen it firsthand in my kids. For example, standardized testing has done a great job teaching them how write something that sounds good but is actually meaningless. I think the Common Core and Next Generation Science Standards, with the emphasis on understanding concepts more than facts, is a good thing. But I think we’re investing too much in the testing that will go along with the new standards.
How must education change in your country to ensure that students are equipped to thrive in the 21st century?
The lowest hanging fruit is to scale back on standardized testing. That’s easy conceptually, but not politically. But just as important is rethinking how we teach so that kids spend most of their time learning how to learn, not mastering facts. (This is related to the standardized testing problem, because if you want a standardized test, it’s going to be about mastery of facts, which is easy to assess, unlike determining whether someone can solve a new problem.) Facts are easy to look up; understanding what you need to know in order to solve a problem is the hard part. Students also need to learn how to work alone and in groups, and they need to learn how to communicate what they know.
About Lauren Aguirre
Director of Digital Media, NOVA/WGBH Educational Foundation
Lexington, Massachusetts, USA
- Birthplace: Needham, Massachusetts
- Current residence: Lexington, Massachusetts
- Education: M.I.T. B.S. in Science Journalism and Russian
- Website I check every day: Accuweather
- Person who inspires me most: My father
- Favorite childhood memory: Playing in the mud.
- Next travel destination (work or pleasure): D.C. (work)
- When was the last time you laughed? Why? Today, instead of crying.
- Favorite book: The Peaceable Kingdom
- Favorite music: Patty Griffin
- What is the best advice you have ever received?: Don’t let anyone else define you.
- Your favorite quote or motto: The winds of god are always blowing, but you must set the sails.