USF St. Petersburg’s College of Education Opens New Hands-On STEM Lab

(Oct. 15, 2018) – Imagine transporting students studying Shakespeare back to 16th century England through the use of virtual reality. Or helping a geography class understand changes to Florida’s topography  by printing a 3-D map.

All of this and more will be possible with the opening of the new STEM INQ lab in USF St. Petersburg’s College of Education. The state-of-the-art space will allow aspiring educators and current faculty to infuse the latest in Science, Technology, Education and Math (STEM) into their teaching methods.

“We know that an understanding of STEM is key to success in a world where technology plays such an important role,” said College of Education Dean Dr. Allyson Watson. “Future teachers, future counselors and leaders from throughout education can come here to gain new insight on how STEM can be integrated into every part of the curriculum.”

The public will have the opportunity to explore the new lab during an Open House on Oct. 20 during the St. Petersburg Science Festival. The lab is located on the second floor of the Coquina building in the USF College of Education and will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m.

The lab is rich with multidisciplinary tools, including a plethora of 3D printers in addition to one state-of-the-art laser printer, VEX IQ and First Lego Robots, AutoCAD and virtual and augmented reality. It is designed to encourage experiential and inquiry-based models of learning, which means more hands-on experimentation and less time reading textbooks.

“We have to educate teachers to be 21st century learners,” said Dr. Sandra Vernon-Jackson, who is overseeing the lab. “We want to encourage them to take risks and to muddy the waters as much as possible.”

David Rosengrant, an Associate Professor in STEM education, said he believes the lab will encourage faculty to expand their view of how STEM technology can be used in the classroom. For example, a teacher can bring a history lesson to life by allowing students to explore ancient ruins by using virtual reality glasses.

“The idea is that STEM is everywhere,” Rosengrant said. “It’s not just something I do in my science classes.”

One of the devices that Ronsengrant uses as part of the STEM lab is a Merge Cube, a holographic device that allows users to interact with 3D objects through augmented reality. The device appears to be a simple foam cube, but when it’s paired with an app available on a smartphone, it can take users on a tour of a solar system, the human body or the Louvre Museum, among others.

Dr. Vernon-Jackson said there’s a vital need for this type of training so that future educators will be more aware of changes in technology. That will help them anticipate what their students will be experiencing in the next 5-10 years.

“I want them to ask, ‘What can we do differently and how can we use this to take on some global challenges?” she said.

The lab is intended to be a valuable asset not only to USFSP students and faculty, but also to the university’s K-12 education partners in Pinellas County and beyond. In fact, local students from fifth, sixth, seventh and eighth grades got a sneak peek of some of the STEM lab’s technology during a robotics camp held over the summer. More community events are planned throughout the year.

Dr. Vernon-Jackson said she is particularly interested in developing an interest in STEM among girls and African Americans, who are traditionally underrepresented in STEM fields.

“I think we are at the start of an amazing journey,” she said. “I can’t wait to see where it takes us.”