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College of Education

UW gaming, robotics pilot article gains

national science education visibility

A just-published article describing pilot data from a University of Wyoming study exploring the use of gaming and robotics in public school classes to improve mathematics learning is receiving national attention.

The article, Using Robotics and Game Design to Enhance Children’s Self-Efficacy, STEM Attitudes, and Computational Thinking Skills,” was published online in the Journal of Science Education and Technology. UW Professor Jacqueline Leonard is the primary investigator of the research, supported by a three-year, $1.2 million National Science Foundation grant. Alan Buss, UW associate professor of elementary and early childhood education, is a co-author.

The “Visualization Basics: uGame-iCompute Project” was designed to help teachers engage fifth- through ninth-graders in gaming and robotics to promote interest in science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM).

UW’s project has engaged elementary and middle school students in 25 Wyoming schools since this Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers (ITEST) project, funded by the National Science Foundation, was first introduced in 2013. Some school districts have participated in the program since year one of the three-year project, and 979 students have participated to date.

The eight original schools participating were Arapahoe Middle School, Laramie Junior High School, Powell Middle School, University Park Elementary School (Casper), UW Lab School, Wheatland Middle School, Worland Middle School and Wyoming Indian Middle School. Since then, seven and nine school districts, respectively, have joined the program in years two and three.

During the multiphase project, team members first trained teachers to develop mathematical and scientific lessons that were culturally relevant to their students. Leonard and her team of colleagues worked with the teachers to analyze the impact on students’ overall learning. The research team also worked with participants interested in becoming peer trainers to help extend the project’s reach after the grant period ends..

UW researchers also have observed improved student development of computational thinking skills and problem-solving skills. Leonard says early in the project there was a learning curve that teachers and students had to overcome to learn the programming and software.

Monya Ruffin, National Science Foundation program director, acknowledged the research’s contributions during a recent UW visit.

“With the release of President Obama’s Computer Science for All Initiative in January 2016, there is a big push (nationally) for  programs and research focused on computing, computational thinking, and the use of innovative technologies to support learning and teaching at the K-12 levels, including out-of-school contexts,” Ruffin said. “Game design falls within the realm of computer science skills that are important for preparing students for our rapidly changing, technology-driven world.”

“This project is really important, because it looks at robotics and computational thinking and design much earlier in students’ academic trajectory,” she said of the project’s focus on younger children.  “Right now, there is still much to learn about the interface between computer science and STEM learning, self-efficacy and identity, metacognitive awareness, and skill acquisition among elementary and middle school students.  This project seeks to address some of these issues and is really pushing the envelope in these domains.”

Another notable component of this research is its inclusion of students from groups that typically are underrepresented in the STEM fields, she said. That makes the project “particularly timely and unique.” It also supports the NSF’s efforts to increase the talent pool in these disciplines.

Also noteworthy is this work’s funding via the NSF’s ITEST (Innovative Technology Experiences for Students and Teachers) program.” Key ITEST goals are workforce development and broadening participation in STEM fields.

“This project exposes youth to various STEM careers,” she said. “They are getting an opportunity to meet professionals that work in computer science, gaming, robotics, and engineering. They are getting early exposure to potential STEM careers that they might not have otherwise considered.”

Ruffin shared news that this project will be spotlighted in a future NSF Discoveries, a publication that translates cutting-edge, NSF-funded research into ways that are accessible to non-scientist audiences, including members of Congress. Inclusion in Discoveries is a competitive process.

Jacqueline Leonard

Jacqueline Leonard
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