September 26, 2007: Professor Tom Moher receives NSF funding for research on ubiquitous learning technologies

Computer Science professor Tom Moher has received a $683,670 NSF grant, "Supporting whole-class science investigations with spatial simulations". The interdisciplinary three-year project, lead by UIC, is a collaboration among with Jennifer Wiley (Psychology) and Joel Brown (Biology) at UIC, along with Deborah Kilb (Seismology) at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography.

Where learning technologies were once circumscribed by the form factor of the desktop computer, emerging ubiquitous computing and communications technologies are giving rise to new designs that expand the space of activity structures available to students and teachers. This project explores the capabilities of one such design framework, Embedded Phenomena, in which conventional classroom computers serve as location-dependent "portals" through which learners collaboratively conduct investigations of simulated spatial phenomena. Embedded phenomena are distinguished by their unique utilization of classroom space and time. The simulated phenomena are purported to occupy the physical space of the classroom, so that not only are phenomena embedded within the space, but also learners themselves are embedded within the phenomena. The simulations run continuously for days and weeks, concurrent but asynchronously with respect to the regular flow of instruction, giving learners the opportunity to explore the kind of "patient science" that requires the accumulation of evidence gathered over extended periods of time.The project includes both learning and technology research objectives.

The learning research objective of the project is to explore the impact of the embedded phenomena framework on student learning, motivation, and participation. This question will be investigated through an empirical study of learner outcomes in upper elementary school units in seismology and insect ecology. Design teams including teachers, domain specialists, technologists, and learning researchers will design two "matched" versions of each instructional unit, one using existing embedded phenomenon applications (RoomQuake and RoomBugs, respectively), the other employing the same instructional design and set of activities but without the spatial and temporal embedding. Over the course of two school years, two teachers (one each from an urban and suburban school) will teach both variants of the two units. In each intervention, outcomes including development of skill in science practice, conceptual understanding, and affective stances toward investigation will be characterized using a battery of formative and summative assessment instruments.

The technology research objectives of the project are to broaden access to embedded phenomena applications and to develop and evaluate new interaction techniques that could further expand the space of activity structures available to students and teachers. To increase access, the research team will build an Internet-based Phenomenon Server that will allow teachers to configure and schedule simulated phenomena for delivery to their classroom, along with an electronic Phenomenon CaseBook permitting teachers to store and retrieve records of classroom experiences with the units. New interaction techniques involving the use of handheld computers as simulated portable instruments, simulated phenomena that respond to sound and motion, and mechanisms for sharing simulated phenomena across multiple classrooms, will be designed, implemented, and pilot-tested in classrooms separate from those involved in the formal learning research study.

Electronic Visualization Laboratory
Learning Technologies Group

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