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SMALLab gets big boost from MacArthur grant

August 26, 2008

The chance for more K-12 students to use interactive media in classrooms to enhance their understanding of physics, math, geology, language arts and beyond has just improved exponentially.

ASU’s Situated Multimedia Art Learning Lab (SMALLab) program recently received a nearly $600,000 grant to share with the New York-based nonprofit 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 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 schoolteachers and students collaborate in the classroom,” says David Birchfield, assistant professor in the Arts, Media and Engineering (AME) program. “SMALLab gets students and teachers up out of their seats and has the potential to reshape learning in the 21st-century classroom.”

The AME program is a collaborative initiative between ASU’s Herberger College of the Arts and the Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering.

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; in essence, 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 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 6-12 grade school being designed in New York.

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 an 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, multisensory forms of learning. SMALLab is an incredibly good fit with these values.”