Cross-national studies of student achievement (e.g. TIMSS, PISA) indicate lack of scientific competence for a considerable proportion of students. For example, about 50% of EU countries that participated in PISA 2015 had significantly lower than average performance in basic science and mathematics skills, while only 2 countries (Estonia, Finland) were included within the top-10 rated countries globally, with scores lower than 13% (OECD average concerning share of low achievers).
In addition to students’ low achievement in sciences, there is well-documented evidence of declining interest in key STEM topics and/or careers for students in EU and internationally (EU Commission, 2008; CEDEFOP, 2012; OECD, 2012; EU Skills Panorama,2014). Low student performance and decline in interest are of concern, since skills in STEM are among key competencies all individuals need in a knowledge-based society for employment, inclusion, subsequent learning, personal fulfillment and development.
The situation calls for urgent action. At EU level, this concern has been expressed by EU policy makers, in a series of EU summits and reports from the Education Committee (2014), culminating in the strategic targeting of resources to improve science education and ensure full participation among people from all backgrounds. Methods of instruction have been identified as contributing to students’ falling interest and performance in STEM education (eg. EU Commision, 2008; Braund & Reiss, 2006). Despite the extensive calls for the uptake of learner-centered forms of pedagogy focused on inquiry and
problem-solving (Rocard Report, 2007), changing teaching practices is proving difficult. Research literature indicates a disconnection between calls for reform and actual classroom practice and suggests persistence of traditional, teacher-centred approaches (EU Commission, 2007; Klette, 2009). There is strong evidence that, in practice, inquiry-based science education (IBSE) is not widely implemented in EU schools (EU Commission, 2007; Euler,2011). Additionally, the current environment limits development to silo products and creates barriers to the adoption of new learning technologies.
Changes in teaching cultures that will help improve student performance and attitudes, and to reduce disparities in STEM outcomes between different EU countries are required. Enlivened Laboratories for Science, Technology, Education and Mathematics (EL-STEM) seeks to practically contribute towards meeting the 2020 EU target of reducing the number of underachievers in STEM education to below 13% and of motivating a bigger proportion of young Europeans to exhibit interest in STEM and to undertake scientific and technical studies and careers (Council of the EU, 2006). This practical contribution is expected to be achieved by integrating Augmented Reality (AR), or more generally Mixed Reality (MR), within secondary STEM education, to make the subjects more accessible and attractive for all children, and particularly those at special risk of exclusion from scientific studies and/or careers. AR is an innovative technology and, given its potential, it is already supported by the EU Commission. The Innovation Union-A Europe2020 Initiative, has funded several AR-related research projects in different fields including education (Martens, 2010).
EL-STEM developed, pilot tested, and implemented an innovative in-service teacher training program, that offered EU secondary school STEM teachers with high quality professional development on how to effectively embed AR into instruction. The program provided an innovative Methodological Framework and related AR/MR Learning Resources that equipped teachers with a wealth of practical experiences and methods of IBSE that can help foster children’s learning and motivation towards STEM-related studies and careers.
EL-STEM aims at fostering an innovation “ecosystem” that will facilitate more effective and efficient user-centric design and use of AR/MR resources for personalised STEM learning and teaching. EL-STEM‘s priorities are summarized as follows: