IES Blog

Institute of Education Sciences

A Night to Play and Learn

By Dana Tofig, Communications Director, IES

It was an event that had the feel of an arcade, but the heart of a schoolhouse.

The Ed Games Expo on Wednesday, December 9, 2015, hosted 45 developers who are building games for learning that are designed to engage students across a variety of topics and subject matters. One-third of the games on display at the Expo are supported by the Institute of Education Sciences Small Business Innovation Research (ED/IES SBIR) program, which provides awards to companies to improve the use of technology in education.

Photo by Lauren Kleissas

(Photo by Lauren Kleissas)

"Games are inherently engaging," said Brooke Morrill, an educational researcher at Schell Games. "A student may or may not be interested in a topic matter, but it doesn't matter. They are engaged in the game."

Schell Games was demonstrating a prototype of "Happy Atoms," a game that combines hand-on resources with technology to create an interactive learning experience. Users can use create atom models with balls and sticks; similar to the way it’s been done in Chemistry classes for generations. But using an app equipped with vision recognition software, users can scan the model they've built to see what they've created or if they've made any mistakes. The app then connects to curriculum-aligned content about the molecule and how it is used in the real world.

Happy Atoms (pictured below) was a long-time pet project of the company's CEO, Jesse Schell, who is a vanguard in the educational gaming industry. However, the company didn't have funding to put a full-time team on the game's development. In 2014, Schell received a Phase I funding from ED/IES SBIR to develop a prototype and, earlier this year, received a Phase II award to further develop and evaluate Happy Atoms.

"We wouldn't be where we are without our IES funding," Morrill said.

A few tables away, the Attainment Company was demonstrating ED/IES SBIR-supported technology that is designed to build the reading, comprehension, and writing skills of special education students. For instance, Access: Language Arts is an app and software designed to allow middle school students with intellectual disabilities to read adapted versions of the books their peers are reading (like The Outsiders and the Diary of Anne Frank) while building their writing skills and even engaging in research.

 

"We know many students, especially those with autism, are motivated by technology because of the consistency it provides," said Pamela J. Mims, an assistant professor of special education at East Tennessee State University, who is working with Attainment on Access: Language Arts.  "We collected a lot of data on this and we see a lot of engagement."

Engagement is a big part of what drove John Krajewski, of Strange Loop Games, to develop ECO, another game that has received Phase I and II funding through ED/IES SBIR. Krajewski calls ECO a “global survival game,” in which students work together to build and maintain a virtual world for 30 days.

“You are trying to build up enough technology for your society, but in the process you can pollute and damage this world to the point it could die on its own,” Krajewski said. “You have to make decisions as a group about what has to be done in this world.”

In order to preserve the world, players have to pass laws that will protect resources while allowing society to continue to develop. For example, students might decide to limit the number of trees that can be cut down each day. Then, they can use graphs and data to see the impact of their laws and the health of their world. ECO not only builds an understanding about ecology and environmental science, but it builds real-world skills, like collaboration, communication, and scientific conversation and debate.

Krajewski said the funding from ED/IES SBIR not only allowed the project to be developed, but was a vote of confidence that allows ECO to be accepted in the field.

“IES has given us total runway to make this thing happen, which is awesome,” he said.

ED/IES SBIR is now soliciting Phase I proposals from firms and their partners for the research, development, and evaluation of commercially viable education technology products. You can learn more on the IES website

 

ED Games Expo 2015: Showcasing ED/IES SBIR-Supported Games for Learning

Game-based learning is gaining popularity as more and more young people and adults play and learn from games in and out of the classroom. Well-designed games can motivate learners to actively engage in challenging tasks, master content, and sharpen critical thinking and problem solving skills. The meteoric rise and popularity of mobile handheld and tablet devices has enabled game-playing anywhere and at any time, providing expanded opportunities for game developers.

In recent years, the Small Business Innovation Research program at the Institute of Education Sciences has supported the R&D and evaluation of many games for learning.  Other SBIR programs across the Federal government are also investing in games for learning across education, health, and the military.

The ED Games Expo is an annual event. This year the Expo is showcasing 45 developers (including 15 supported by ED/IES SBIR) who created games for learning. At the Expo, attendees will meet the developers while playing games that cover a range of topics – including earth science, ecology, chemistry, math, early learning, social and emotional learning, smoking cessation, mental health, stress resilience, or cultural awareness.

Event Details

  • Date: Wednesday, December 9, 2015, from 6PM to 8PM 
  • Location: In Washington DC, at 1776, 1133 15th St. 12th floor
  • RVSP: rsvp@theESA.com
  • Note: The Expo is sponsored by 1776 and the Entertainment Software Association and is free to attend. Please RVSP to ensure entry to the event, as space is limited. 

 

 

Questions? Comments? Please email us at IESResearch@ed.gov.

The Nexus Between Teaching and Research: What I Learned Working on an IES Grant

 

Samuel Choo is a doctoral student at the dissertation stage in the Department of Early Childhood, Special Education, and Rehabilitation Counseling at the University of Kentucky (UK). In this blog post, he describes how working on an IES grant gave him first-hand experiences in planning and carrying out research in schools. He also discusses how these research experiences helped him understand the important connections between research and teaching.

How did you get started working on this IES research project?

The first I heard of IES was six years ago as a resource room teacher at a middle school. Dr. Brian Bottge, who is now my doctoral adviser, was awarded a NCSER grant to test the effects of Enhanced Anchored Instruction (EAI) on the math performance of middle school students. My school was randomly assigned to the EAI group. The project staff did a good job of teaching us how to implement EAI in our resource rooms. Soon after teaching with the new curriculum, I noticed that my students were much more motivated and engaged than they had been. In fact, they looked like they were actually enjoying math! Posttest scores showed positive results in favor of the new curriculum.

And so this experience as a teacher got you more interested in research?

Yes! The next year I applied to the UK doctoral program. I joined Dr. Bottge’s IES grant team as a research assistant where I learned how classroom-based research is planned and conducted. I had many opportunities to participate in the research experience. In my case, I helped train math and special education teachers, observed classrooms and assessed research fidelity, provided teachers with technical support, assisted in scoring tests, and worked on data entry and analysis. Project leaders also asked me to suggest revisions to the daily lesson plans based on my experiences teaching with EAI the year before.

Can you talk more about your developing research interests related to math education?

After the grant ended and after I finished my doctoral coursework, I went back to teaching in North Carolina, where I taught low performing middle school students in a Title I resource room. I ran my own pilot studies using what I had learned while teaching with EAI as both a research participant and research assistant. To help offset the cost of materials for my first study, I was awarded a $1500 Bright Ideas Grant from the North Carolina’s Electric Cooperatives. Thanks to the company’s generosity, I was able to fully implement all the lesson plans developed by Dr. Bottge’s grant team.

This experience was especially important to me because it was my first try at conducting my own research with a prescribed protocol, which I had learned from working on the IES project. Posttests showed statistically significant improvement of students in the EAI group in both computation and problem solving. Based on these results, the sponsor invited me to participate in a panel discussion in Raleigh, NC. The CEOs of the company attended the event along with policy makers and school administrators from across the state. This whole process, from applying for funding to carrying out the study to reporting the results, helped me make connections between university, classroom, and community.

What have been your big takeaways from these experiences?

From the training I received as a study participant, I have become a better teacher.  From working on an IES-funded grant team, I learned a lot about how to conduct classroom-based studies. I am looking forward to designing new instructional methods and testing their effectiveness. Similar to how my students learned math in a hands-on way, I learned research methods by having the opportunity to use them in practice, and for that I am very grateful. 

Where Are They Now? A Q&A With the Creators of EcoMUVE – A Virtual Environment for Middle School Science

Where Are They Now? showcases completed IES research projects. The feature describes the IES project and research findings, and updates the progress since IES project completion.

By Ed Metz, NCER Program Officer

In this inaugural Where Are They Now? feature, we take a look back at a 2008 grant to researchers at Harvard University for the development of EcoMUVE.

EcoMUVE uses Multi-User Virtual Environments (MUVEs), which have the look and feel of video games, to help middle school students gain a deeper understanding of ecosystems, scientific inquiry, and causal patterns. The MUVEs recreate authentic ecological settings within which students explore and collect information. Students work individually at their computers and collaborate in teams within the virtual world. EcoMUVE includes two modules, Pond and Forest; each module is a two-week inquiry-based ecosystems curriculum. EcoMUVE received the First Place award in the Interactive and Immersive Learning Category at the 2011 Association for Educational Communications and Technology conference, and has received follow-on support from the National Science Foundation and Qualcomm Wireless. 

In this blog, we catch up with two of the researchers who led the development of EcoMUVE, Chris Dede and Shari Metcalf, to look back at their IES project and to learn about recent developments.

How and when did the idea to develop a virtual environment for science learning come about?

Chris Dede’s prior research with the River City project looked at supporting student inquiry using immersive exploration in a virtual world. Meanwhile, Harvard Professor Tina Grotzer was developing ways to support students in understanding complex causality in ecosystems. They worked together on a grant proposal to IES to combine their interests.

How does a virtual environment provide meaningful learning opportunities that otherwise might not be possible?

Ecosystems are complex systems shaped by relationships that often happen at microscopic levels, at a distance, and over long periods of time. Immersion in virtual environments can transform the learning experience by situating the learner in a rich simulated context in which new visualization opportunities are possible – e.g., zooming in to the microscopic level, or traveling to different points in time.

Students start to get a feel for the ecosystem and its relationships through tacit sensory clues. It is an uphill walk from the pond to the housing development, and students can walk down along a drainage ditch and through the pipe where runoff flows into the pond. The pond becomes noticeably greenish during the algae bloom. 

Students can experience turbidity directly by walking under the water of the pond and seeing how murky it looks on different days.

 

What was an unexpected outcome of the development process?

The types of “big data” about motivation and learning for each student that EcoMUVE can generate include: time-stamped logfiles of movements and interactions in the virtual world, chat-logs of utterances, and tables of data collected and shared. Other digital tools can provide data from concept maps that chart the flow of energy through the ecosystem and that document each student team’s assertions about its systemic causal relationships, with adduced supporting evidence. Using Go-Pro cameras, students’ collaborative behaviors outside of digital media can be documented. We would like to use this data to provide near-real time feedback to students and teacher, through various forms of visualization.

What were your main research findings from the IES development project?

After using EcoMUVE, students showed gains in learning of science content, and also improvements in their attitudes towards science, particularly in the beliefs they were capable and interested in being scientists. Teachers felt that the curriculum was feasible, well-aligned with standards, and supported student engagement and learning of science content, complex causality, and inquiry, and had multiple advantages over a similar non-MUVE curriculum. A study that looked at student motivation found that, while at first students were most enthusiastic about the 3D virtual world and game-like environment, over time their engagement centered on the inquiry-based pedagogy and the collaborative problem-solving.  Gains were also found in students’ complex causal reasoning about non-obvious causes; distant drivers of ecosystems dynamics and the system parameters; and processes, steady states and change over time.

How has the EcoMUVE project proceeded in recent years since the IES research project ended?  

Beginning in May, 2012, we’ve been pleased to be able to offer a standalone version of the EcoMUVE software for download through a free license from Harvard University. As of January, 2015, over 1,200 users have registered with the website. The EcoMUVE project receives e-mail inquiries almost every week from educators who are interested in the curriculum. In some cases, whole districts have adopted the EcoMUVE curriculum, including Cambridge, MA, and Peoria, AZ.

Internationally, researchers at the University of Hong Kong have been working with Harvard University to use EcoMUVE for professional development, to help teachers understand how to use scientific investigations as learning activities for students. Other collaborators include Sydney University, and Aalborg University in Copenhagen.

Looking ahead, what does the future hold for EcoMUVE?

We continue to make EcoMUVE available for download from our new website, http://ecolearn.gse.harvard.edu. We have been extending our research to develop EcoMOBILE, an extension of the EcoMUVE curriculum that blends immersive virtual environments with the use of mobile technologies during field trips to real ecosystems for observations and data collection. EcoMOBILE is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) and Qualcomm’s Wireless Reach Initiative. We have also just started a new research project, EcoXPT, also funded through NSF, designed to work alongside EcoMUVE to support experiment-based inquiry in immersive virtual environments.

Questions? Comments? Please send them to us at IESResearch@ed.gov.

About the Interviewees

Shari J. Metcalf is Project Director of the EcoMUVE project at the Harvard Graduate School of Education. She holds SB and SM degrees from MIT, and a PhD from the University of Michigan, where she designed and developed Model-It, a software tool for students building models of dynamic systems. Her professional focus is the design of educational software tools, and in particular on using modeling, simulation, and virtual immersive environments to support inquiry-based science learning.

Chris Dede is the Timothy E. Wirth Professor in Learning Technologies at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education.  Chris was the Principal Investigator of the EcoMUVE project. His fields of scholarship include emerging technologies, policy, and leadership.  His research includes grants from NSF, IES, and the Gates Foundation to design and study immersive simulations, transformed social interactions, and online professional development.  

Beyond Wikipedia: Reading and Researching Online

By Becky McGill-Wilkinson, NCER Program Officer

Gone are the days of library card catalogs and having to consult the 26-volume hardbound encyclopedia gathering dust on your parents’ bookshelf. Students these days have seemingly infinite information at the tips of their fingers. Most households in the U.S. have a computer, and most teachers report at least one computer in their classrooms. Research shows that the majority of high school students use the Internet to complete school assignments, and 71 percent of students use their laptop computers for school. In this changing world, it becomes more and more important to understand how reading and researching on the Internet are different from performing those tasks with books and other paper texts.

Don Leu and his team at the University of Connecticut have been examining this topic for several years. First on their agenda was studying whether reading online is the same as reading on paper. They discovered that students who are poor readers on paper may be good readers online, and students who are good readers on paper are not necessarily good readers online, suggesting that reading online requires some unique skills. Leu and his collaborators argue that reading online requires that students be able to: (1) use search engines; (2) choose appropriate search result; (3) judge whether the source can be trusted to be accurate and unbiased; and (4) consolidate information across multiple websites or online texts.

Of course, it’s not enough to understand the process of reading and researching online. As with any skill, some students are better at it than others, and as computers, tablets, and smart phones become more common, it becomes more and more necessary for students to hone their online reading and research skills if they are to succeed in college and career. Teachers need to be able to teach these skills, and teachers need to be able to identify when their students need extra help or practice. In 2005, Leu received a grant from NCER to study Internet use in adolescents at risk for dropping out of school, and developed an intervention to help teach seventh-grade students specific strategies to locate, evaluate, synthesize, and communicate information on the Internet.

Building on this earlier work, in a 2009 grant from NCER, Leu and his team set out to develop measures of online reading comprehension. The end result of this project is a set of Online Research and Comprehension Assessments (ORCAs) for use with seventh grade students. The team developed both a multiple choice version and a version that allows students to work in a simulated internet environment. In both versions, the student is tasked with answering a research question posed by a simulated peer, and must use a search engine, choose the appropriate search result, determine whether a source is trustworthy, and then tell their simulated peer about what they found. The ORCAs were tested with 2,700 students in two different states, and the researchers surveyed teachers and other practitioners to determine whether the ORCAs were usable.

Leu has been especially interested in thinking about how changing ideas about literacy may impact low-income students differently from middle- and high-income students. In a recently published paper, Leu shows that students who came from families earning approximately $100,000 per year were more than a year ahead of students whose families earn approximately $60,000 per year on online reading abilities as measured by the ORCAs. This study highlights the importance of considering the achievement gaps between high- and low-income students on a variety of domains, including those not typically measured by standardized tests, such as online reading comprehension.

The ORCAs are available online for free, as is a professional development module to help teachers learn to use it. 

Questions? Comments? Please email us at IESResearch@ed.gov.