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SMALLab gains big boost

Groups of students learn together through complex problem solving within SMALLab’s physical interaction space. The Gaming SMALLab is a collaborative project between the Arts, Media and Engineering (AME) program at Arizona State University and the New York City-based Institute of Play.

Photo by Ken Howie Studios.

August 05, 2008

TEMPE, Ariz. — The chance for more K-12 students to utilize interactive media in classrooms to enhance their understanding of physics, math, geology, language arts and beyond, has just exponentially improved. The Situated Multimedia ArtLearning Lab (SMALLab) program at Arizona State University recently received a nearly $600,000 grant to share with the New York City-based non-profit, Institute of Play, from The John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation. The collaborative project, “Gaming SMALLab,” designs an educational framework for game-like, mixed-reality learning for K-12 students and teachers.

“The opportunity provided by the MacArthur Foundation to partner with the Institute of Play is something that ultimately will have a huge impact on how K-12 school teachers and students collaborate in the classroom,” says David Birchfield, assistant professor in the Arts, Media and Engineering (AME) program; a collaborative initiative between the ASU Herberger College of the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering. “SMALLab gets students and teachers up out of their seats and has the potential to reshape learning in the 21st-century classroom.”

Within SMALLab’s physical interaction space – a cube that is 12-feet tall and 15-feet wide on all four sides – groups of students learn together through complex problem solving. A computer tracks students’ movements and gestures as they interact with digital graphics projected beneath their feet, while dynamic surround sound envelops the space – their bodies become part of the computer interface. In the “spring sling” scenario for example, students gain a better understanding of physics. They hear the sound of a spring picking up speed; see projected bodies moving across the floor; feel a physical ball in their hands and move to propel the system.

SMALLab is the brainchild of Birchfield and an AME mediated education team of interdisciplinary researchers. The team worked with teachers at Coronado High School in Scottsdale, Ariz. to permanently install SMALLab in one of their classrooms. Birchfield’s recent partnership with Katie Salen, who heads the Institute of Play, expands SMALLab’s reach to the East Coast. Within the “Gaming SMALLab” project, the Institute of Play will guide the design and development of a suite of standards-based learning scenarios using the SMALLab environment, for eventual installation in Quest to Learn, a new 6-12 grade school they are designing in New York City. At Quest to Learn, students will assume the identities and behaviors of designers, historians, inventors, mathematicians, scientists and writers in contexts that are real and meaningful to them. In this "game-like" setting, the students’ approach to learning draws on the intrinsic qualities of games and their design to engage them in a deep exploration of subject matter.

“We’re incredibly excited about this opportunity to build on the amazing work that David has done with support from MacArthur,” says Katie Salen, executive director of the Institute of Play and associate professor of design and technology at Parsons The New School for Design. “Our work is focused on the design of 21st-century learning environments that support kids in challenge-based, interdisciplinary, multi-sensory forms of learning. SMALLab is an incredibly good fit with these values; we are eager to see where David’s team, our teachers, students and game designers can take it together.”

The Arts, Media and Engineering Program, a collaborative initiative between the Herberger College of the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, provides transdisciplinary graduate degrees and conducts research in experiential media. AME incorporates the combined expertise of 14 departments and 49 faculty members from across the university to offer a PhD in Media Arts and Sciences, as well as 15 concentrations in degrees of collaborating units spanning arts, sciences and engineering. AME faculty and students develop and apply rapidly changing technology to enhance education, health and everyday living. For more information about AME, visit

The Institute of Play is dedicated to the research and development of learning systems, based on game design and play that prepare students for success in the 21st century. The Institute is currently designing a new small school – Quest to Learn – in New York City, through a partnership with New Visions for Public Schools, Pearson, and The New School. Their school design process aims to harness strategic thinking around gaming and game design as an innovative curricular and learning paradigm and actively seeks to change the way institutions of learning are conceived of and built. More information is available at

The MacArthur Foundation supports creative people and effective institutions committed to building a more just, verdant, and peaceful world. In addition to selecting the MacArthur Fellows, the Foundation works to defend human rights, advance global conservation and security, make cities better places, and understand how technology is affecting children and society. MacArthur’s $50 million digital media and learning initiative aims to help determine how digital technologies are changing the way young people learn, play, socialize and participate in civic life. More information is available at or 

Media Contact:
Wendy Craft
Media Relations