Four-year NSF grant funds faculty innovation in educational simulation design and development

by The College of Education   /   Sep 11, 2014

New technologies are emerging that allow people to interact with computers with physical actions, such as waving their hands or moving their bodies. These technologies are starting to show up in the area of entertainment, such as video games, but Assistant Professor Robb Lindgren believes that these devices can be put to use in helping students learn complex concepts in areas such as physics and chemistry.

Dr. Lindgren’s research is being funded by a new four-year, $1.45 million Educational CORE Research grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF). For this project Dr. Lindgren and his co-investigators, Associate Professor David Brown and Assistant Professor Daniel Hoffman, are attempting to design innovative science education simulations based in research on how body movement such as hand gestures promote learning and understanding. Whereas educational research often focuses on existing technologies and how to apply them to learning contexts, this project seeks to design and develop new technologies that are specifically configured to maximize student learning.

“This award is an opportunity for the College to lead the way in technology development,” said Lindgren, whose research examines theories and designs for learning within emerging media platforms. “We can’t rely on the tech industry to create designs that are optimized for learning and education because that’s not their area of expertise—that’s our area of expertise.”

Dr. Lindgren and his UIUC colleagues are partnering on this project with The Concord Consortium, a nonprofit educational research and development organization that focuses on technology designs for science and math education. The Concord Consortium has developed numerous educational simulations that they will be adapting to allow students to control them using hand gestures instead of a computer mouse or keyboard.

The UIUC team will be conducting their research and testing the simulations with middle school children in the Champaign, Urbana, and Danville school districts. The goal is to expose students in the Central Illinois area to cutting-edge technologies and to work with local science teachers on the development of new tools to help their students learn. These studies will focus on students’ learning development as they delve into topics including molecular interactions, heat transfer, and “Earth systems” such as the water cycle.

Unlike the typical approach of having students read text or observe their teachers conduct demonstrations, the researchers on this project have developed a study in which students work hands-on with phenomena and then process through computer simulations and “embodied interactions” with these simulations what’s happening with non-visible but explanatory entities, such as atoms and molecules.

“Embodied cognition is an idea that’s very important,” said co-investigator David Brown. “It’s the concept that our ideas evolve because of our bodily interactions with the world. There’s evidence to show that when people use their embodied motions to think, they’re better able to learn new ideas.”

Tablet simulation Further learning takes place when simulations, which can be displayed on a computer or tablet, not only mimic the properties and functions of the hands-on demonstration but also allow students to see the interactions of hidden entities, such as atoms and molecules, that help to explain their observations. For example, in one of the activities, Brown blocked off the end of a plastic syringe (the kind used to deliver medicine orally) and asked students to compress the plunger. They noticed that it got harder the more they compressed it and that the plunger moved back out when they let go. When asked to explain these observations, some students mentioned molecules of air while others focused on air as continuous or as empty space. But none of the students focused on molecules in motion continually striking the plunger, providing the outward force. As the plunger is moved in, the molecules strike the plunger more frequently, causing the increased pressure. In using the simulation, students could see the molecules in motion striking the plunger and could explore the effects of moving the plunger on the motion of the molecules. This ability to “see the unseeable” is a particularly powerful aspect of these simulations. This grant takes this one step further, from students being able to see the molecules to allowing them to “be the molecules,” that is, allowing them to control the motion of the molecules using their bodies.

Brown noted that the chosen science topics being examined within the study are important aspects in the Next Generation Science Standards. Additionally, The Concord Consortium already has a number of existing simulations that target these subject areas.

“We’re not starting from scratch,” Brown said. “We’re working with existing simulations but then trying to add ways of controlling the simulations that tap into students’ body motion.”

Dr. Lindgren’s previous research has shown that children who use their bodies to actively express their understanding of science concepts not only show improvement in learning outcomes, but also are more engaged and show more positive attitudes towards science.

“Students who are engaged physically start seeing themselves as somebody who could actually participate in the practice of science, and that has huge implications in terms of developing a stronger STEM workforce, more people who are willing and interested in getting involved in those types of careers,” he said.

The professors have witnessed genuine progress in children’s thinking when students use their hands, begin to visualize, and form tentative conclusions about what’s occurring. Combined with emerging technologies, the educational possibilities are incredibly promising, they believe.

At the end of the four-year study, Lindgren and Brown envision a whole suite of simulations that children of diverse populations will have access to, using economical and accessible devices both in and outside of the classroom. The key, according to Lindgren, is anticipating future technological developments and designing and prototyping the types of tools that bring out the best mix of technology and solid learning theory.

“That’s really what this project is trying to do,” Lindgren said. “Getting ahead of what’s going to be available in the technology landscape and creating tools that other researchers and practitioners can look to as models.”

Interested in other technological advances happening in the College of Education? Discover the College’s wealth of edupreneurs and meet two professors who are teaching the College’s first MOOC course.