Elizabeth Forward lab enables teachers to use technical tactic dubbed embodied learning

| Thursday, Sept. 27, 2012, 2:09 p.m.

In an Elizabeth Forward Middle School classroom, students in an eighth-grade math class spent a recent morning literally getting into their lesson.

Standing in their socks on a 15-by-15 game board that was projected onto a foam mat on the floor, they waved wands to move brightly colored virtual balls around the space.

They used trial-and-error to figure out what each colored ball did when it came into contact with another.

Did one ball bumping another cause it to multiply? Or did one eliminate another?

The students' strove to develop a strategy to beat their opponents.

What they end up doing, educators say, is honing skills related to reasoning, decision-making and critical thinking.

The teaching tactic is called embodied learning. It blends lessons and human-computer interaction.

Elizabeth Forward educators are implementing it with Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab, known as SMALLab Learning, which uses a ceiling-mounted projector, motion-sensor cameras, wands, and a computer to create scenarios in which students can learn.

The district is the first public school system in Pennsylvania to use the technology, developed at Arizona State University.

“It's about getting students out of the standard desk and up and moving,” said Todd Keruskin, Elizabeth-Forward's assistant superintendent.

A $20,000 grant from the Allegheny County Intermediate Unit and Grable Foundation in part funded the technology, which cost $35,000 and is new to the district this year. The district paid the balance.

Teachers in all subjects trained on the program, so anyone can incorporate it into a lesson plan.

“It's as much about how the teacher drives discussion as it is about the game itself,” said Bart Rocco, superintendent.

Students who aren't playing the game observe from the perimeter, taking notes and offering their classmates suggestions.

Eighth-grade classmates Madison Stepanik, 14, and Kaylee Fritz, 13, said they like getting out of their usual classroom to use SMALLab.

“It's cool to see how you can control it,” Madison said.

Lexi Korenoski, 13, a sixth-grader, said it gets students more interested in learning.

“I've never seen anything like it,” she said.

Other SMALLab games students can play include “disease transmission,” in which they work as a whole to keep a population of avatars alive in a real-time outbreak simulation.

In “light and mirrors,” they learn angles as they work in pairs to manipulate virtual mirrors.

To keep the program growing, Elizabeth Forward partnered with students from Carnegie Mellon University's Entertainment Technology Center to develop even more scenarios.

“We try to talk about problem-solving. So many of the kids don't understand,” said Keruskin.

“You put them in an environment like this, and every kid is engaged.”

Rachel Weaver is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. She can be reached at 412-320-7948 or rweaver@tribweb.com.

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