Using technology to build bridges for problem-based learning


Erik Ketcherside

The classroom is noisy. One reason is the rambunctious PE class on the other side of the windows in one wall. The other is the excitement level of the girls in the classroom, sitting in twin desks and chatting nonstop. At least one, often both of the girls in each pair taps away on a smartphone or tablet. They frequently look at each other’s screens, point, sometimes laugh and constantly talk.

Mobile device use is an infraction in most classrooms, resulting in confiscation and maybe even a discipline referral. But in this biology classroom, the teacher remains at the front and simply watches. She knows the phones and tablets are as vital to her lesson plan as textbooks and pencils. They are the only way each pair of girls can communicate with the other two members of their project teams.

The girls are students at Al Farouk Islamic Language School in the middle of Heliopolis, a busy urban neighborhood in Cairo, Egypt. Their project partners are 7,500 miles away: students at Xavier College Preparatory School in Phoenix, Arizona. And the assignment at hand (literally) for both is: Describe for your team members the home you live in. How are your homes alike? How are they different? Now create a combined Cairo-Phoenix home and then …

… create an analogy comparing the hypothetical home you designed together to the structure of a cell.

Creating dialogue and nurturing leaders 

The lesson was created by Peter Rillero and Kozan Soykal of ASU’s Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College for Rillero’s research project, “Girls Collaborating in STEM through Virtual Exchanges.” And though it may be a science-based lesson, and Rillero’s title is associate professor of science education, he makes it clear that describing cell structure is not the most important objective.

“I’ve had a lot of international experiences that really affected me and changed my global view,” Rillero says. “I was excited by this project because it’s a chance to bring U.S. youth in contact with Arabic youth. I saw the grant and really liked the idea of bringing people together.”

The grant was made available by the Stevens Initiative, housed at the Aspen Institute. The Stevens Initiative is an international effort to build global competence and career readiness for young people in the United States, the Middle East and North Africa while growing and enhancing the field of virtual exchange: online, international and collaborative learning. Joining the Stevens Initiative in supporting these international collaborations is the U.S. Department of State.

The Stevens Initiative was conceived and developed in close partnership with the family of U.S. Ambassador J. Christopher Stevens, who was killed when militants attacked the U.S. Special Mission in Benghazi, Libya, in 2012. His family was inspired by the meaningful international exchange experiences the ambassador had as a young man which helped shape his career. Stevens was fascinated by other cultures and was known for seeking opportunities to engage in open and respectful dialogue with everyone he met.

Rillero based his project proposal on an initiative he created for high school students called Leadership through Problem-based Learning. He explains that his project for the girls in Egypt and Phoenix has two purposes. The first is to arrange dialogue and opportunities to work together between groups of young people from different cultures. The second is to embed those opportunities within a context of leadership. “The idea is that if you want to be a leader, you not only have to be able to get along with others,” Rillero says. “You have to be able to benefit from the interactions and come up with good solutions together.”

Leadership training is valuable for young people wherever they live and whatever languages they speak, but it’s vital for young women in Egypt who choose to enter the STEM fields — science, technology, engineering and mathematics. In the U.S., where women make up nearly half of the workforce, they hold less than 25 percent of STEM jobs, according to a 2009 study by the U.S. Department of Commerce. In Egypt, women account for only 26 percent of the total workforce, according to the U.S. Agency for International Development. And when women are less prevalent in the STEM workforce, they are also less likely to be promoted to leadership positions that might allow them to address the gender gap.

Rillero says the foundation of his project is to “... get people together, give them a problem in science and let them get used to working together with someone who is very different from them.  In the process, they learn about that other person and their culture. Simultaneously, we’re helping girls develop STEM leadership abilities to encourage not only STEM careers but leadership in STEM careers.”

Choosing partners

The girls at Al Farouk and Xavier Prep aren’t the only beneficiaries of learning to work with, as Rillero puts it, “diverse others.” He’s gaining substantial experience with that himself.

“The biggest hurdle was getting a school approved,” he says. “We had the grant, we just needed Egypt’s Ministry of Education to sign off on a government girls’ STEM school we selected. That went on for months.” Rillero says he was never told “no,” but also wasn’t able to get final approval. “So we realized we would have to partner with a private school,” he says.

The choice of which private school was important, Rillero says. First, it had to be a language school, a special designation for Egyptian schools in which all the math and science classes are taught in English. A language barrier would have made the virtual student partnerships nearly impossible.

Second, Rillero wanted a school that reflected mainstream Egyptian education. That’s why, he says, “We were a little reluctant to go with a private school. But we found a good partner in a very urban, residential area of Cairo. And the school fees are not extravagant.”

Because Al Farouk is a single-sex school, it was necessary that the stateside partner be, as well. The administration at Xavier Prep was eager to participate when Rillero came to them. Sister Joan Fitzgerald, Xavier’s president, says creating an international project for her students and faculty made the opportunity attractive. “Our hope was that we would be creating mutual understanding and friendship, as well as creative and interactive solutions to educational issues focusing on girls’ gifts in science and technology.”

Rillero says, “Sister Joan Fitzgerald and Sister Joan Nuckols, the principal, have been very supportive because they also stress the aspects of leadership and problem-based learning at Xavier.” Still, because Xavier is a Catholic school and Al Farouk is Islamic, Rillero thought the difference in faiths might be a potential sticking point. “In the beginning, I was thinking I might have to go there and talk to parents to allay concerns they might have,” Rillero says. “But there was none of that. They just felt, yes, this is something we want to do. Let’s go forward and do it.”

Fitzgerald wasn’t worried at all about parental concerns. “All the parents have been enthusiastic and supportive,” she says.

Learning to stay out of the way

Theology is not the only area in which the two schools differ. Rillero says schools in Egypt tend to be very teacher-oriented in delivering instruction. “Sometimes the teachers want to frontload a whole lot of information,” Rillero says. “We would rather they explore first, then based on that experience they can talk about the concepts. And that has worked out well.” That may be another reason the girls at Al Farouk are enjoying the project: They’re engaging directly with the subject and their U.S. partners while their instructors take a support role.

“Directly” doesn’t mean “simultaneously,” however. Rillero says, “Because of the eight-hour time difference, it’s difficult to arrange a way for the teams to meet. We were hoping to have more opportunities for synchronous learning. And maybe that is going on outside the classroom. But for now, the teachers launch a project, the girls work on it independently, and then they come together and share their results.”

Science instructor Nicole Mabante, one of the project’s teachers at Xavier, says that independent collaboration is certainly taking place, bringing with it benefits beyond STEM learning. “The students think this is a great opportunity, and they are more interested in learning along with culturally different student partners,” Mabante says. “They’re learning about other cultures first-hand. They are engaged and they carry on conversations outside the classroom, cementing foreign friendships and being more culturally aware.”

Fitzgerald agrees: “This has become more than an educational project. It’s one of creating a positive exchange of ideas.  The students arrive early in the morning to take part, enthusiastically spending more time than required and showing how technology can be used as an instrument of cultural exchange and mutual understanding.”

At Al Farouk, physics teacher Intessar Tmam says her students are equally enthusiastic. “The students are so excited about the subject. They have their own points of view and they’re going to discuss them. They speak about the problems they face and they try hard.

“They have a lot to learn from this activity,” Tmam says. “First, the ability to have ideas and to test them. Second, they’re able to work as a team and communicate with a different culture, a different situation. They’re going to discover a way they can solve a problem together.

It's not about who is going to solve it better, but reaching a solution together. That’s very important.”

Good for the students, good for the teachers

The teachers also had the opportunity to find solutions together when Tmam and her colleague at Al Farouk, biology teacher Abeer Abdelaziz, visited Phoenix in January to collaborate in drafting the next phase of the project.

“We had a good visit,” says Rillero. “The plan was for the Egyptian teachers to work with their U.S. counterparts on developing activities three through five, and they made good progress. We also hoped they would start creating U.S.-Egyptian bonds, and I believe this was successful.” The visit wasn’t all work, Rillero says. The group took a trip to the Grand Canyon. And, appropriate to the project, they also experienced an escape room, a collaborative entertainment in which team members work together to crack codes, discover clues and solve puzzles to achieve their goal.

This April, the U.S. teachers will go to Cairo for discussions of how effective activities three through five were in the spring, and then participate in the design of activity six. Rillero says the next step after that comes in September. “We’re going to do a full experimental study with a control group and a treatment group, and have them implement all six activities with some different measures,” he says. “One of those will measure collaborative problem-solving ability. We’ll also measure attitudes toward working with different people.”

It’s those attitudes that fuel Rillero’s passion for the project. “I’m excited to see how much interest the young people have for learning about other cultures,” he says. The girls in Egypt really want to learn about the girls in the United States, and the girls in the U.S. want to learn about the girls in Egypt, and they want to work together. I think sometimes we just assume that people don’t want to work together, and clearly, they do.

Rillero adds, “I hope people realize that, if we want leaders in our country and in other countries, part of their experience needs to be that they can learn to work with diverse others.”

Find out more about the Elementary Education degree in science, technology, engineering and math offered at our Polytechnic campus. This degree helps pave the way for future teachers to have a firm grounding in math and science.