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Grant to support innovative K-12 STEM education

September 14, 2010

An interdisciplinary team led by the ASU School of Arts, Media and Engineering (AME) was awarded a more than $2.5 million grant from the National Science Foundation’s Discovery Research K-12 (DR K-12) program. AME is a collaborative initiative between the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University. The DR K-12 program supports projects with the potential to significantly advance STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) education through innovative methods.

The grant benefits AME’s research in K-12 embodied and mediated learning for five years, beginning in fall 2010. The research team is led by David Birchfield, AME associate professor, and includes an interdisciplinary team of ASU faculty members. The team brings together expertise on education, psychology, interactive technology, gaming, arts, STEM learning and teacher preparation.

The grant enables the team to continue research in the Situated Multimedia Art Learning Lab (SMALLab), developed at ASU. SMALLab is a research-based, embodied learning environment that uses K-12 students’ senses of hearing, movement and sight in practical ways to enhance instruction in STEM disciplines. In SMALLab, physical action meets 21st century learning. Motion-capture technology tracks students' 3D movements as they are immersed in an interactive space. For example, as students are learning about a physics concept like velocity, they can hear the sound of their actions getting faster. They can see graphs and equations that represent their motions in real time. They can feel the weight of an object in their hand as they interact in real physical space.

Birchfield and the research team have brought SMALLab to more than 38,000 learners in schools and museums since 2005, and have demonstrated significant learning gains compared to other methods. The DR K-12 project will leverage and broaden the work Birchfield and the team previously has done on embodied learning using SMALLab in schools in Arizona and New York. School partners on the project will include Coronado High School (Scottsdale), Phoenix Country Day School (Phoenix), and Quest To Learn (New York City).

“The team’s ultimate goal is to use the NSF Discovery Research funding to establish a replicable model for collaborative University/K-12 research that advances innovative and successful STEM learning,” Birchfield says.

The DR K-12 project will allow the research team to examine how the degree of embodiment affects learning gains. In order to do this, they will compare student use of SMALLab, interactive whiteboards, and desktop computers, initially in a lab setting and later in real-world classrooms. The DR K-12 project will produce data through interdisciplinary research that furthers the team’s understanding of embodied STEM learning across a range of technology-based learning environments. This will impact the learning sciences research community, as well as the tools and methods that K-12 teachers use. The team hopes to demonstrate a causal link between emerging neuro-cognitive research and its application in the design of new STEM learning environments and learning scenarios. The team also will produce a set of expert-designed learning scenarios, curricula, and teacher-support materials that advance students’ knowledge of core STEM topics in physics and mathematics. This will directly impact more than 750 STEM students and 20 teachers during the grant period. Research and reference materials will be designed to scale nationally.

Additional team members at ASU include: Mina Johnson-Glenberg (AME and psychology); Colleen Megowan (Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College); Arthur Glenberg (psychology); Ellen Campana (AME and psychology); Barbara Kinach (Teachers College); Grisha Coleman (AME); Wilhelmina Savenye (Mary Lou Fulton Teachers College); Aisling Kelliher (AME and design); and David Tinapple (AME). Also partnering on this project is Katie Salen, professor at Parsons the New School for Design, and of the Institute of Play, a New York-based nonprofit dedicated to leveraging games and play in learning."

The National Science Foundation grant is an example of the benefits a research university like ASU brings to the state. Research funding is legally restricted and cannot be used for instructional or other purposes.

The School of Arts, Media and Engineering (AME) is a collaborative initiative between the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering, focused on research and education in experiential (new) media and digital culture. AME incorporates the combined expertise of faculty members from across the university to offer undergraduate opportunities in Digital Culture, a PhD in Media Arts and Sciences, and concentrations in graduate degrees spanning the arts, sciences and engineering. AME faculty and students study, develop and apply new media systems that enhance education, health, culture and everyday living. For more information about AME, visit