From The Flintstones to The Jetsons: Some thoughts on Education and the Digital Revolution

Jan 18, 2017

Throughout modern history, there have been several major industrial revolutions: the age of steam, electricity, computing technology, and now, the digital age. Each one has had their own purpose, and each have paved the way towards further innovation in the world of technology. We have essentially made the switch from a world like the one seen in The Flintstones to the world we envisioned in The Jetsons—a world that has gone from analog to digital; in other words, a digital transformation. In the past, it would have been difficult to picture the usage of technology as advanced as it is today in places like elementary school classrooms, but that it simply not the case anymore; we can see the world of technology being embedded within school curriculums, and the importance of fields like STEM and STEAM being stressed. And as time moves forward, the world will continue to evolve with it.

Threads of the digital revolution really started to emerge around the late 1970s with the adoption of digital computers and recording. From there, digital technologies brought about large, sweeping changes in the latter half of the 20th century continuing today. But we could not have had a digital revolution without the industrial revolutions: steam-powered technology used in the late 19th century eventually gave way to the electronic and motorized technologies of the mid-20th century. From there, the world made the transition from mechanical to digital: whereas in the 1980s, less than 1% of the world’s technologically stored information was in a digital format, in 2007 the amount of information stored digitally jumped to 94%, and then to 99% by 2014. These numbers began to truly jump around 2002, which was said to be the year where humanity was able to store more information digitally than in the analog format.

Comparing numbers from the 1990s to now can be even more staggering: in the year 1990, there were only 2.8 million internet users; by 2016, that number had grown to 3.6 billion—or nearly half of the world’s population. This is in part due to the ease of using digital technologies to store information, and how digital technologies have both simplified and improved our lives. From the first major shifts that started in the digitization of music in the 1980s, to the introduction of home computers in the 1970s and the invention and wide distribution of the World Wide Web in 1989 to 1991, to the popularization of smartphones, tablets, and cloud computing in the early 2010s, digital technologies have only continued to grow and impact the world. And with this growth and impact comes the need to teach new generations about digital technology and how to use it.

This is where the fields of STEM and STEAM come in. STEM, standing for science, technology, engineering, and math, and STEAM, which adds the category of arts into the mix, are quickly becoming a major part in many elementary school curriculums. The focus on these fields is meant to encourage students to explore subjects that they may not have been interested in before—the addition of arts in particular has helped many students to find creativity in fields that they may have found uninteresting before. And now more than ever, educators are realizing the importance of including STEAM into their lessons, and are utilizing many different platforms to do so.

In the 43rd season of the long-running and incredibly popular children’s show Sesame Street, episodes moved from focusing on STEM education to STEAM education. Adding the arts into their STEM-focused curriculum allowed Sesame Street to better teach the creativity aspects that are involved in STEM fields. Their purpose was to make the connection between the scientific and the innovative—to promote creative thinking being incorporated into scientific processing skills. The “Elmo the Musical” segment introduced in the 43rd season allowed children to use their imagination and math skills to solve the different problems that were brought up; children can sing, dance play, problem solve, and imagine with Elmo in his math-filled adventures. Adding a segment like this to the show allowed children to incorporate the arts into their problem solving—something that has been proven to be vital in STEM fields.

In addition to this, many schools have decided to add coding into their curriculums to further inspire creativity in the problem-solving process. Iconic children’s companies like Mattel and Lego have added coding aspects into their educational programs—Lego’s Wedo 2.0 program uses a combination of Legos, software, and real world projects to teach young students about science and technology, and Mattel has partnered with creative computing platform Tynker to create lessons and guided, hands-on tutorials on coding that incorporate popular characters and content from Mattel brands such as Monster High and Hot Wheels. Even brands aimed at very young children are incorporating STEAM learning into their products: Fisher Price’s Code-A-Pillar from their Think & Learn line is aimed towards 3-6 year olds and allows children to arrange different segments to program the Code-A-Pillar to move on a certain path; Primo’s Cubetto toy, aimed at children three and up, uses a control board with coding blocks that allows children to tell their Cubetto robot where to go.

With these toys and programs available to young children, learning coding and teaching STEAM in schools has quickly become a large part of K-12 curriculums. Companies like code.org have made it their mission to expand access to computer science for everyone, especially in increasing participation in women and minorities who are often underrepresented in the computer science field. Code.org and other organizations understand the importance of teaching computer science to students, and believe that every student should have access to learning computer science like they would with regular subjects like math or chemistry. Code.org has managed to integrate their computer science goals into millions of classrooms around the world with their annual Hour of Code event—the Hour of Code, which aims to educate students on the basics of computer science in the span of an hour, has served over 346 million students worldwide, with 49% of participants being female. Code.org has also partnered with 120 of the largest school districts in the United States to introduce computer science into their curriculums—because of this, 10% of all students in the United States have access to courses about computer science and coding. Nearly half a million teachers worldwide have signed up to teach intro courses on code.org’s Code Studio, and over 15 million students are enrolled.

Innovation in all forms is constantly expanding—and in the age of digital technology, innovation is the only way to move forward. We’ve come a long way from the age of steam-powered technology; with 99% of the world’s information being stored digitally, it’s clear that the world has shifted into the digital age. Now more than ever it is important to understand the digital world and to learn about the technology available to us as it continues to evolve—in a world that has moved from The Flinstones to the future envisioned by The Jetsons, the digital revolution is only getting started.

For more information and resources on STEM and STEAM view the links below.

STEM Toys, Learning Toys, Top STEM toys – National Geographic Store

STEAM LABS

MPMK Gift Guide: Top Toys for Building STEM Skills

But what exactly is STEM education?

STEM vs. STEAM: How the sciences and arts are coming together to drive innovation

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