When Kelly Keena, UL’s director of education and outreach was a kid, she hated science class. In middle school when she was asked to dissect a frog, she hid it in the classroom cupboard avoiding the task. Nobody had made the connection between the dissection and how it would help her better understand her own anatomy. The learning wasn’t contextualized.
Kelly ultimately found a passion for science many years later when she was working with youth examining local rivers and macroinvertebrates, and she realized that this was science and the learning for students is relevant in their real world.
With UL Xplorlabs from Underwriters Laboratories, Kelly is helping students find their passion for science sooner because, as she says, “Nobody should have to wait 19 years to understand the relevance of science; we don’t have time for that.”
Since the beginning, Kelly has been a driving force behind the UL Xplorlabs modules. She has helped shape Xplorlabs’ educational philosophy, including connection to the real world, hands-on activities and trust in teachers and students.
Connection to real world
When students participate in the Portable Electrical Power module, they are engaged by the problem of hoverboards causing fires and are tasked to engineer a solution. The module is based on a real-world safety issue that led UL to develop a Standard outlining the process in which hoverboards are tested (UL 2272 Standard: Electrical Systems for Personal e-Mobility Devices).
The Fire Forensics module hooks students with the problem and curiosity of understanding what caused a fire and where it started, leading to the understanding of fire dynamics and behavior.
For Kelly this connection was absolutely critical and what she believes was missing from her education growing up. The link to the real world gives meaning to science class.
“Students are asked to do a lot in eight hours each day and meaning gives them context for their learning,” says Kelly.
Once students are introduced to a problem, UL Xplorlabs helps them build knowledge with a process called backfilling. For example, students learn about what’s happening inside the hoverboard, like the lithium-ion battery and the electrical components. They explore concepts like thermal runaway associated with the lithium-ion battery. They are then able to use that knowledge to engineer a solution, like a better enclosure to protect the battery.
The modules also feature real engineers as the hosts — people who can further connect students to science and engineering everyday applications. Sydney Guillory, who was featured in the Portable Electrical Power module, was an engineering student at the time of filming and offers students a young, relatable role model to inspire their path forward in science.
UL Xplorlabs was never intended to be a virtual-only resource. All modules come with resources to bring hands-on learning to the student, and teachers have the flexibility to integrate experiments and classroom extensions into their curriculum however works best for their teaching style. For instance, teachers in Cobb County, Georgia are partnering with local fire fighters and investigators to give students a closer look at how fire dynamics and forensics play a role in fire investigation, while exposing them to working professionals in science-based careers.
This flexibility also makes the resource accessible for many schools and learning environments. This is by design. Kelly and her team are cognizant of varied access to educational resources and set out to be a high-quality resource for all types of learning environments.
Trust in Teachers and Students
Another intentional facet of UL Xplorlabs is trusting teachers and students to use the platform in the way that is best for them, rather than being overly prescriptive. Teaching is a very personal and professional practice. For teachers, this means they decide how much or how little to use UL Xplorlabs – two days or two weeks. It’s all about what works best for their classroom. Moving forward, UL Xplorlabs will be providing more bite-sized pieces to further help teachers reinforce key ideas throughout the year.
Trusting students to accurately represent the process of science and engineering is important in the pedagogy of the modules, as well. For example, when developing the Fire Forensics module, there was a deliberate decision to stage the burn in a lab in order to give students a clear answer to the investigation. In the real world, fire investigators don’t have someone who can confirm the results of their investigation, and the education team didn’t want to mislead students into thinking there are always answers with science. For students who live in a world where the answer to a question is typically a few keystrokes away, it’s a balancing act to provide answers while allowing for the uncertainty common in science.
The UL Xplorlabs modules were built by passionate educators and supported by expert scientists and engineers. And while it didn’t shape the content, UL Xplorlabs is committed to keeping the modules a free resource. UL Xplorlabs’ goal is to make high-quality and effective education materials available to teachers and students, while helping them connect science and engineering to real-world applications.