Questacon is known for its showcasing of Australian innovation, but it is also generating educational innovation. This is not surprising. Being a national centre in a place the size of Australia demands innovation and creativity to reach the nation.
Questacon has long responded to this "tyranny of distance" through approaches such as the acclaimed Shell Science Circus and numerous travelling exhibitions. In recent years they have added virtual learning experiences to their catalogue.
For all the hype, online learning is really hard to design well. Most of what is called online "learning" is really just online content delivery. It may involve multi-media, but it is fundamentally not that different to a textbook.
Education, though, is more than just a series of textbooks, and the Questacon team have been developing approaches that transfer the engaging and enacted approaches to learning for which they are famous to the online context.
About 15 years ago, a group of researchers from the University of Queensland conducted a large study that identified the things that happen in the classrooms that achieve good learning outcomes. The study, known as the Queensland School Reform Longitudinal Study, formed the basis of the Productive Pedagogies model in Queensland and also the Quality Teaching Model that was adopted in NSW and the ACT.
One of the key elements identified in this research was that in the most productive classrooms ways were found to make the learning "significant" to the students and connected to something outside of school. The idea of significance makes intuitive sense. Learners learn best when the learning activity has greater meaning than doing well in the test.
One only has to watch an episode of Quantum to know that science education has a seemingly endless supply of "significance" to offer, yet science education has largely struggled to translate the potential of the field into classroom practice. There are many reasons for this.
A reason getting a lot of coverage in recent years is that many teachers are weak in or lack confidence in their science knowledge. Of course, even for those with strong science knowledge, the links between the school curriculum and what is going on at the cutting edge of science are not always easy to make.
Attempts add significance to student learning by connecting them to experts in science and technology are not new. The CSIRO's Scientists in Schools program does just this, and the use of video conferencing to connect students and scientists is now well established and has reached as far as Antarctica, and even into space.
Questacon's educational designers are building on these approaches and adding additional layers to connect the work of real science and technology with children's learning.
Questacon's latest offering in this regard is the 3D Printing Challenge.
In its various forms, 3D printing is a significant technology with many applications from printing viruses, to medical bionics to emailing a spanner to the international space station. It is also a cool new toy in many offices and schools.
In schools 3D printing has obvious uses in fabrication in technology classrooms. Questacon, though, have found an educational use for 3D printing and have been able to simultaneously deliver it to schools in Western Australia, Victoria and the ACT.
The educational outcome of the 3D printing challenge is not in what is produced, but in how it is produced.
The challenge is the relatively trivial task of designing parts of the body of an imaginary creature. The significant part of the challenge is that students are asked to use computer-aided design (CAD) and computer-aided manufacture (3D printing) to do this collaboratively, across Australia.
In itself, the 3D printing challenge is a really interesting educational activity. It is in how they introduce it, however, that the approach really stands out.
Using the Schmidt video conferencing studio, Questacon have been able to connect the collaborating schools with each other, and to bring in an expert from the sponsor, Raytheon.
The expert, an engineer, is able to discuss how he has been using 3D printing to collaborate on the design of aircraft by printing out the structures surrounding the part he was working on.
In doing so, an interesting activity was turned into a significant activity that students could understand was mimicking real life at the cutting edge of technology.
Projects such as this demonstrate that online learning can be so much more than online content delivery, but they need to be translated into the wider world of education if we are truly to see a digital education revolution.
Educational providers, policy makers, and researchers would be wise to take note of the innovation taking place in settings such as Questacon. In the mean time, schools interested in connecting their students to cutting-edge science and technology should check out what Questacon is doing next – it may not be what you expect.
Dr Simon Leonard is associate director of the Inspire Centre for Innovation in Education and Training at the University of Canberra, and currently the 'Educator in Residence' at Questacon.