Skip Navigation
Funding Opportunities | Search Funded Research Grants and Contracts

IES Grant

Title: Cyber-enabled Tangible Molecular Models for High School
Center: NCER Year: 2012
Principal Investigator: Davenport, Jodi Awardee: WestEd
Program: Education Technology      [Program Details]
Award Period: 3 years (03/01/2012-02/28/2015 Award Amount: $1,499,815
Type: Development and Innovation Award Number: R305A120047

Co-Principal Investigator: Arthur Olson (The Scripps Research Institute)

Purpose: Test scores on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress suggest that nearly half of 12th grade students in the United States fail to reach a basic proficiency in science. Since more than 90 percent of high school students enroll in biology, there is an opportunity to intervene in high school biology classrooms and potentially improve student outcomes. In particular, incorporating technology may have the potential to better convey the complex structures of molecules and describe dynamic biological processes than existing textbooks, which are limited to (static) text and figures. The researchers propose to develop cyber-enabled tangible molecular models and companion activities to enhance the instruction of core concepts of molecular biology taught in high school. These physical, flexible models of molecules are embedded with magnets (which enable the simulation of chemical attractions) and contain unique visual markers. When the tangible models are manipulated in front of a webcam, the software recognizes the markers and tracks the motion of the physical model in real time. This allows for the display on the monitor of an augmented-reality version of the model, showing both the physical manipulative along with computer-generated 3D-images. This environment may promote active investigations, and is anticipated to lead to student learning.

Project Activities: In this project, researchers will develop cyber-enabled tangible molecular models and companion activities for four topics in high school biology: protein structure, enzymes, DNA, and viruses. This proposed project will build on an ongoing program of molecular modeling research and development at the Scripps Research Institute. The initial phases of the evaluation will focus on gathering data on usability and feasibility that will be used to inform two rounds of iterative revisions of the technology. Following the second round of revisions, researchers will carry out a pilot test in Year 3 to investigate both the feasibility of using the cyber-enabled tangibles in high school biology classrooms, and the effects of the cyber-enabled tangibles at promoting student learning and engagement in molecular biology. Throughout the development of the intervention, researchers will consult with teacher developers and an advisory panel regarding how to translate the data from the studies into revisions to the materials.

Products: The products of this project will be fully developed cyber-enabled tangible molecular models and companion activities for common biology topics for high school students. Peer reviewed publications will also be produced.

Structured Abstract

Setting: This study will take place in urban and suburban high school classrooms in California.

Sample: Participants include teachers of and students in high school biology from ethnically and socio-economically diverse backgrounds.

Intervention: Researchers will develop tangible molecular models for four topics in high school biology: protein structure, enzymes, DNA, and viruses. The models will be cyber-enabled, allowing the software to track in real-time the models being physically manipulated by users in front of the computers' webcam. The physical manipulation may promote an understanding of how proteins interact (e.g., magnets embedded in the models simulate polar affinities), and illustrate how secondary and tertiary structures emerge during the movement. The software will provide additional (virtual) information on the monitor, superimposing it on the displayed model. Additionally, the team will develop classroom companion activities.

Research Design and Methods: For this project, researchers will iteratively refine the plastic and paper tangible models of molecules to ensure they are relevant to high school biology and enhance the existing software and accompanying user technologies. Researchers will then evaluate and assess the usability and feasibility of both the cyber-enabled tangibles and corresponding classroom activities, and assess student learning and engagement. Researchers will interleave iterative development efforts in Years 1 and 2 with usability and feasibility studies, which will drive revisions of the technology. This stage of development and testing will involve three teachers and their students: approximately 225 students across nine classrooms. Then, in Year 3, researchers will conduct a pilot study of revised versions of both modules with a total of six teachers (the original three plus three new ones) and approximately 360 students to ascertain whether there are learning gains associated with the use of the modules in the core concepts, reasoning skills and spatial understandings that are central to molecular biology.

Control Condition: Due to the nature of the research design, there is no control condition.

Key Measures: Measures to assess usability, feasibility, and reliability will include verbal protocols from cognitive lab studies, student responses on assessment items, instructional logs, classroom observations, questionnaires and interviews with teachers, surveys, and measures of motivation and engagement. Measures of student learning include both proximal and distal measures, such as researcher-developed quizzes and field-tested biology items drawn from several sources.

Data Analytic Strategy: Descriptive and correlational analyses will be conducted in order to examine any relationship between the usage of models and learning gains. The team will complete item analyses (including item difficulty and point-biserial correlations) of items included in the researcher-developed quizzes using a Classical Test Theory approach in order to determine the adequacy of the items for testing relevant student outcomes. Learning gains will also be assessed with independent pre/posttests using a partial credit model, which will provide estimates of student ability on the outcome measure of science content knowledge.


Book chapter

Quellmalz, E.S., Silberglitt, M.D, Buckley, B.C., Loveland, M.T., and Brenner, D.G (2016). Simulations for Supporting and Assessing Science Literacy. In Y. Rosen, S. Ferrara, and M. Mosharraff (Eds.), Handbook of Research on Technology Tools for Real-World Skill Development (pp. 191–229).

Journal article, monograph, or newsletter

Davenport, J., Pique, M., Getzoff, E., Huntoon, J., Gardner, A., and Olson, A. (2017). A Self-Assisting Protein Folding Model for Teaching Structural Molecular Biology. Structure, 25(4): 671–678.

Davenport, J.L., Silberglitt, M., and Olson, A. (2013). In Touch With Molecules: Improving Student Learning With Innovative Molecular Models. RCSB PDB Newsletter, 15.

Gardner, A., and Olson, A. (2016). 3D Printing of Molecular Models. Biocommunication, 40(1): 15–21.


Davenport, J.L., Silberglitt, M., Boxerman, J., and Olson, A. (2014). Identifying Affordances of 3D Printed Tangible Models for Understanding Core Biological Concepts. In Proceedings of the International Conference of the Learning Sciences (ICLS): The Learning and Becoming in Practice, Vol. 3 (pp. 1583–1584). Boulder, CO: International Society of the Learning Sciences.

Johannes, K., Powers, J., Couper, L., Silberglitt, M., and Davenport, J. (2016). Tangible Models and Haptic Representations aid Learning of Molecular Biology Concepts. In Proceedings of the Annual Conference of the Cognitive Science Society. Philadelphia: Cognitive Science Society.