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Learning environments that spark curiosity

August 12, 2009

Winslow Burleson will use his recently awarded $50,000 Innovation Generation grant from the Motorola Foundation to support efforts to spark young students’ interest in science, technology, engineering and math.

Burleson is an assistant professor of human-computer interaction in the School of Computing, Informatics and Decision Systems Engineering. He has a joint appointment in the School of Arts, Media and Engineering, a partnership of the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering and the Herberger Institute for Design and the Arts.

Much of his work focuses on developing interactive educational technologies,   involving “motivational environments,” and “mixed-reality cyber learning.” The projects align with the aims of STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) education programs supported by the U.S. Department of Education and the National Science Foundation.

In the Motivational Environments for STEM Learning program, K-12 teachers – as well as science educators outside of traditional school environments – are using hands-on and online activities to engage young learners. 

The curriculum includes robotic pet-building for kindergarten and elementary school students, and interactive robotic development programs designed for middle school and high school students.

“To adequately equip future generations of scientists, engineers and designers with a solid understanding of the potential and the limitations of science and technology, we need to provide engaging experiences that emphasize the human elements of technology, that foster intrinsic motivation for learning, critical thinking, curiosity and imagination,” Burleson says.

Intrinsically motivated learning, a self-motivated approach to education fostered in the motivational environments, has significant benefits over more traditional extrinsically motivated learning, which employs the approach of using “imposed” goals (for example, traditional grading) pursued for external rewards. 

“Extrinsic motivations often lead learners to shallow forms of engagement,” Burleson says. “Helping students pursue intrinsic learning opportunities and making them broadly available will have a transformative effect on society.”

These low-cost interactive technologies “have the potential to provide highly engaging project-based activities that develop and sustain learning for a much broader audience than ever before,” he says.

For example, students who use robotics education kits in pet-building activities in classroom environments now have greater opportunities to continue to learn through informal, collaborative, and online exploratory play with their pets at home.  This integration of formal and informal education emphasizes the importance and potential of seamless experiences between classroom activities and outside activities. 

Burleson’s work is demonstrating that intrinsically motivated, personally tailored learning that integrates formal and informal education from both physical and digital environments “has tremendous potential to enhance individuals’ capabilities, self-efficacy and creativity.”

Matt Evans

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