ASU technology partners among finalists for major grant funding

students looking at computer

An innovative online course, successfully developed and deployed at Arizona State University, is the basis of a far-reaching online science education project that is a finalist for a major grant from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

The Gates Foundation announced today that a team led by Smart Sparrow, a Sydney, Australia-based educational technology company – partnered with ASU – is a finalist for a $20-million pool of funding in the Next Generation Courseware Challenge Competition.

The group will establish the Smart Science Network, a digital teaching network that will develop and deploy innovative online courseware to improve the learning outcomes of low-income and disadvantaged college students in high-enrollment introductory science courses across the United States.

“We are excited about this project because it exemplifies key design aspirations of ASU as a New American University,” said ASU President Michael Crow. “It seeks to transform society, enable student success and fuse intellectual disciplines. We look forward to joining with our technology partners to invest in new ways to educate through exploration.”

Dror Ben-Naim, CEO and founder of Smart Sparrow, said the project represented "an opportunity to bring together the nation's top science educators and empower them with the best tools we've got, in order to solve a systemic national problem. ASU spearheading this effort is a natural fit.”

Smart Sparrow was one of three ASU technology partners to be included in the Gates Foundation’s list of finalists. The others are: Acrobatiq, a Carnegie Mellon company that designs customizable, adaptive courseware; and CogBooks, which is designing a project to provide top-quality courseware to U.S. college students at affordable prices.

“The whole learning experience will be designed in collaboration with ASU, drawing on their extensive experience in online learning, flipped classroom models and innovative teaching methods,” CogBooks said in announcing its recognition by the Gates Foundation.

The proposed courseware for the Smart Science Network will follow the design principles of Habitable Worlds, a fully online course offered through ASU Online that teaches science through exploration of the question “Are we alone?”

Key principles include: organizing curriculum around “big questions” at the frontiers of knowledge that cut across traditional disciplines; teaching concepts through rich, game-like interactive, adaptive online lessons and simulations; and deepening and evaluating concept mastery by applying knowledge in project-based learning.

Ariel Anbar, an ASU President’s Professor, will play a pivotal role as the academic lead of the Smart Science Network consortium. Anbar and Lev Horodyskyj, both in the School of Earth and Space Exploration in ASU's College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, created Habitable Worlds, which has been offered to more than 1,500 ASU students since 2011. The ongoing development and evaluation of Habitable Worlds is supported by NASA’s Astrobiology Program and the Directorate for Education and Human Resources of the National Science Foundation.

“We developed Habitable Worlds to address some common, critical problems in introductory science education that are especially challenging for disadvantaged students,” said Anbar. “For example, many students tune out in large lectures because they teach science as passive acceptance of what is known, rather than active exploration of the unknown. Also, we tend to teach as though knowledge is organized into distinct disciplinary ‘silos,’ even though the cutting-edge questions that motivate both students and scientists cut across those silos. The Smart Science Network will apply the lessons we’ve learned in developing and teaching Habitable Worlds.”

The Smart Science Network will leverage Smart Sparrow’s adaptive digital learning and analytics technologies to develop two online “Smart Courses” that will improve student engagement and success in introductory college science courses with traditionally high levels of failure. Students in a Smart Course will explore a transdisciplinary “big question” to motivate learning of introductory college science concepts in biology, chemistry and physics. The first Smart Course will expand on Habitable Worlds’ exploration of the question “Are we alone?”

“Science is rational exploration of the unknown, not just mastery of what is known,” Anbar explained. “So, Smart Courses will not be about memorizing facts and answers, but about using logic and reasoning to solve problems, to understand uncertainties, and to train and inspire students to tackle big, challenging questions.”

In addition to Smart Sparrow and ASU, the Smart Science Network includes Achieving the Dream, Inc.; 23 additional colleges and universities, many of whom are in the Achieving the Dream network; and a research and evaluation team led by George Siemens, a world leader in learning analytics, at The University of Texas at Arlington.