Posts tagged ‘education research’

July 29, 2013

Pt. II: Using Data Goes International with New Pilot from Kuwait’s Ministry of Education & MESPA

Kacy Karlen for TERCtalks

In continuation from Part I of “Using Data Goes International with New Pilot from Kuwait’s Ministry of Education & MESPA“, TERC’s Diana Nunnaley shared her experiences after her first trip to Kuwait as a data PD provider for the Kuwaiti Ministry of Education’s Improvement of Educational Management and Professional Development (IEMPD) project.  Under the direction of the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals’ Association (MESPA), Diana and the Using Data team are ushering in this new school management and leadership pilot in Kuwaiti public schools. She chatted with me about the first phase of data work, her perspectives on education reform, and the value of data-driven decision-making across oceans and continents.

Diana Nunnaley, Project Director for Using Data

Diana Nunnaley, Project Director for Using Data

TT: So were these Kuwaiti educators and administrators already using data in their schools?

DN: In the majority of schools, using school, district, and national data to improve student learning was a brand new concept. Even when we talked about what kinds of classroom assessments teachers were using, it had been—for the most part—a very linear process. Teachers gave a test; it was graded; it went into the grade book. They got national results, and principals and districts looked at those—a process which led administrators to the conclusion that they needed to reform the whole Kuwaiti education system. But in the schools and at the teacher level—it was altogether rare that teachers had unpacked those national results at all.

TT: Can you tell me a bit more about Kuwait’s public education system? Is it similar to the public education system in the United States, or are there some significant differences?

DN: Like most places, there is a broad range of educator and administrator knowledge and experience. I met some administrators and educators that were very knowledgeable and doing things based on research, similar to educators here. What I noted as the main challenge for educators and administrators was conveying the Kuwaiti national curriculum. It offers up extensive content and syllabus depth, but only allows for the ‘memorize and regurgitate’ model in schools. Kuwaiti educators and administrators want to move toward ways to engage students in more authentic learning.

The sense I get from the educators and administrators is that historically, the Kuwaiti public school system has been very top-down. Directives came from the Ministry of Education, and went through the district with very explicit instructions to teachers as to how to carry out learning standards. But there has been a cultural shift with their reform movement, and now the Ministry of Education is looking to principals to become instructional leaders in their schools, and work collaboratively with faculty to shape what teaching should look like, accompanied by new standards. With this new plan, faculty are being given more trust and more agency in the classroom.

TT: You mentioned national testing, but are there any nationwide standards movements like the Common Core, or the NGSS? What is the reaction/feeling around implementing national standards?

DN: That’s exactly where Kuwait is going. The Ministry of Education’s international team of experts coming from the Curriculum, Research and Quality Assurance education departments of Romania, Estonia, and Uzbekistan is rewriting the curriculum. The new content areas are Arabic, English, mathematics and sciences.  Their vision is to educate internationally-competitive students, supported by an engaged and efficient leadership and including a sustainable, long-term assessment system.

TT: What are your thoughts on the currency and relevance of data-driven PD programming and decision-making internationally?

DN: Data is a tremendous catalyst for helping people to examine long-held assumptions and raise important questions around learning goals, shared understanding of teaching practices, and student outcomes. What we’ve seen as Using Data facilitators is when you start examining learning objectives by getting educators to analyze student and classroom data collaboratively, teachers have those ‘aha’ moments around what standards really look like in practice and what the best pedagogical strategies for impacting learning are.

Importantly, delving into data helps pave the way to vertical articulation conversations —where you have, say, 7th grade teachers noticing student issues around ratio and proportion from their data, and beginning a conversation amongst themselves that leads them to conclude that students are getting hung up on fractions. From there, they have the fodder to chat with their early elementary teachers about what is being introduced around fractions in terms of language, manipulatives, et cetera. So then you have your primary teachers entering the conversation—the result is  that you get a more coherent version of what learning is like, K-12, and how elementary educators can help build formative understanding from grade-to-grade.

Using Data gets teachers away from being alone in their classrooms, trying to figure it all out on their own. Engagement with student and school (and even district and national) data promotes a significant change in school cultures—where there are more open lines of communication, better pedagogical decisions made, and better student outcomes.

TT: Thanks so much, Diana!

For more information on Using Data, please visit: and join in the data-driven conversation on Twitter  @TERCUsingData.

July 22, 2013

Pt. I: Using Data Goes International with New Pilot from Kuwait’s Ministry of Education & MESPA

Kacy Karlen for TERCtalks

 I joined Diana Nunnaley, Project Director for Using Data, on one of her first days back from a whirlwind trip to Kuwait. As part of  Kuwait’s Ministry of Education’s Improvement of Educational Management and Professional Development (IEMPD) project, Diana and the Using Data team have been selected as one of four PD providers by the Massachusetts Elementary School Principals’ Association (MESPA) ushering in this new school management and leadership pilot in Kuwaiti public schools. Diana chatted with me about the first phase of data work, her perspectives on education reform, and the value of data-driven decision-making across oceans and continents.

Diana Nunnaley, Project Director for Using Data

Diana Nunnaley, Project Director for Using Data

 TT: Hi Diana. Thanks for joining me. So tell me a bit about how you got involved with IEMPD pilot…

 DN: It all started with the work we’ve been doing for the last 3 years with the Massachusetts Elementary School Principal’s Association (MESPA) in Marlborough under Executive Director Nadya Higgins. We’ve offered two different Using Data leadership seminars there, and have had subsequent opportunities to work with schools and districts across Massachusetts.

Nadya herself is very much personally invested in education reform supporting administrators. She has been working with the Middle East Initiative at the Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University to bring educators and administrators from Kuwait to the U.S. to study education reform—Massachusetts is seen as a leader internationally in education reform!

Through her work with the Middle East Initiative—and after working with the Ministry of Education in Kuwait to create and deliver Study Tours—Nadya was invited to submit a proposal in response to an RFP for this pilot. As she has experienced our work and our reputation in the field of data-driven professional development, Nadya wrote us into the proposal to provide PD around collaborative inquiry and the effective use of data—we are one of four consultants, and the only data PD provider contracted through MESPA.

 TT: Tell me about your first time in Kuwait, and any surprising moments you had.

DN: I think my greatest surprise was that—despite having a vastly different culture­—Kuwait educators and administrators share the same kinds of goals we have for education here in the United States. On the surface, the Kuwaiti culture looks and sounds very different from those of the U.S. cities and towns where we typically work. But once we began talking to the Ministry of Education staff, school administrators, section leaders, and support staff about teaching and learning, we were all speaking the same language. Their passion for helping their students reach international standards of learning mirrors what educators here are also working to achieve.

This is an extremely ambitious project —the Ministry of Education is planning to implement new leadership roles and responsibilities, new teaching standards, new learning standards and eventually—new assessments. And these huge systemic overhauls will be happening simultaneously! We’ve been working at it for years here in the U.S. The teachers and school staff who volunteered to participate in this pilot have an enormous undertaking before them. But their willingness to be the first to implement totally new paradigms for teachers and students alike is more than commendable—it’s like they are the first astronauts to go into space!

TT: Would you mind elaborating on the kind of programming you implemented?

DN: The visit to Kuwait kicked off the first phase of our work. It was the first time we met our Kuwaiti educators at the district and school levels. Some of them have already been part of developing the new leadership standards for principals as part of this initiative; some of them have been part of the team developing new teaching standards for teachers and new curriculum in 6 content areas. But we got to introduce them to the key aspects of a new vision for school leadership. Our part of this first session was to begin to help them understand what effective data use looks like in schools and to engage them in talking about their challenges and views around data use.

We introduced our group to research supporting key factors and conditions in place to introduce, initiate, and support deep engagement with school data. I gave the group an opportunity to use a scale to predict their current data use and share their ratings with their colleagues. From there, we got into questions about who has access to data—whether it’s a lot of educators or just a few; whether decisions are made broad-base on use of data from teachers, administrators and specialists across schools, or whether decisions are made top-down; whether professional development is an event that happens when someone else somewhere else decides on it, or whether pd is ongoing, formative, job-embedded, and growing from regular teacher engagement with data.  And we discussed whether or not there are supports in place for professional learning communities for teachers to regularly meet, talk about data, and enact solutions around their data analyses.

 TT: Did you use any other models of successful data use?

DN: We shared a video that shows a principal and her staff analyzing their data and sharing their results with students to help them see what using data can look like in the classroom. Our pilot group noted what they observed from the principals; teachers; and the students in the video. Actually, one of the big aspects of the UD process is getting students to engage with their own data—helping them to begin to track their progress, set their goals, and monitor their processes on the path to achieving mastery.

Ultimately, from this visit, I  needed to gather as much information as possible about their local context – what their current practice looks like and of course, more about the expectations for participants in the pilot project from the Ministry’s perspective. […]

For more information about Using Data, please visit:


And tune in next week for Part II of “Using Data Goes International with New Pilot from Kuwait’s Ministry of Education & MESPA”!


July 10, 2013

Post-ISTE Musings: Small Fish, Huge Pond, But Lots of Bites…

Kacy Karlen for TERCtalks

Our recent trip to sunny San Antonio to exhibit at the ISTE 2013 Annual Conference and Exposition was somewhat of a ‘wild card’ venture—and not in the least bit because the mercurial summer weather. We hadn’t exhibited at the conference in several years. We had very little sense as to whether the tech-hungry ISTE audience—teethed on the numerous big name hardware, software, publishing, and product exhibitors—would react favorably to our research endeavors, thought leadership, and prototypes, many of which are available for free or at very nominal costs (we are a not-for-profit org, after all). At the cavernous Henry B. Gonzalez Convention Center, it wasn’t so hard for our team of two to start feeling like the smallest fish in the biggest pond…

A small fry culled from a big pond. By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

A small fry culled from a big pond. By U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

We shouldn’t have worried. We quickly lost count of the number of attendees who stopped by our humble in-line booth to say, “hey, I’m so glad TERC is here! What are you guys up to?” And excitingly, we had lots to share—because in the interim between our last ISTE appearance, we’ve engaged in robust assistive technology development; extensive online community building and designing for digital delivery models; and game research, design and development. We may have been the little guys in the big pond—but we still got lots of bites.

TERC's booth at ISTE 2013

TERC’s booth at ISTE 2013

Here’s what was luring ‘em in:

EdGE games1:  The EdGE team was demoing their addictive particle physics game, Impulse!, in tandem with their captivating laser light game, Quantum Spectre. Both games are in beta versions and currently being pilot tested among high school audiences for efficacy in developing students’ implicit understanding of Newtonian laws of motion and optics. We invited booth visitors to try the games on our laptops and iPad, but versions are also for the Kindle and Android.  On Tuesday of the conference, Impulse!  went live on Apple’s App Store (for free), and by Friday, was one of AppAdvice’s “Best Apps”.

Signing Math and Science2: Judy Vesel’s signing math and science apps for deaf and hard of hearing students were eye-catchers for booth visitors interested in assistive technologies, and for good reason—the portable dictionaries and pictionaries are uniquely interactive learning supports. The flagship Signing Science Dictionary (SSD) is an avatar-based dictionary of science terms and definitions in American Sign Language (ASL) or Signed English (SE) for deaf or hard-of-hearing students in grades 4-8.  A full selection of K-12 Signing Math and Science dictionaries and pictionaries is available for tablets, iPods, and iPhones from

TERC’s Online Communities & Digital Delivery Models: From the successful third year of the IGERT Online Video and Poster Competition3 facilitated for NSF’s flagship Integrative Graduate Engineering and Research Traineeship to the expansion of the CLEAN Network4 of climate science and literacy stakeholders and resources, TERC’s reputation as a thought leader in online community development and facilitation precedes us—it even did at ISTE. Visitors to the booth also picked our brains about new digital delivery models for curricula and professional development—with The Inquiry Project ‘s grades 3-5 physical science curriculum5 and Talk Science PD available entirely online; new online coursework being served up from Investigations Workshops; and even more digital deliverables on deck; we felt—if not entirely MOOC-conversant—in-line with the times.

So here’s to taking the plunge and heading downstream to ISTE 2013. It was well worth the visit, and we should be seeing you as we come up for air next year!


Quantum Spectre and Impulse are part of EdGE’s Leveling Up project, funded by the National Science Foundation (DRK-1119144).

The Signing Science Dictionary (SSD) is funded in part by grants from NEC Foundation of America, the National Science Foundation (HRD-0533057), and the Department of Education (H327A060026)). The Signing Science Pictionary (SSP) was funded in part by  grants from the Carl and Ruth Shapiro Family Foundation, Disability Inclusion Initiative and the Department of Education (H327A080040). The Signing Math Dictionary (SMD is being funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (HRD-0833969). The Signing Math Pictionary (SMP)  is being funded in part by a grant from the Department of Education (H327A100074). The Signing Earth Science Dictionary (SESD)  is being funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (GEO-0913675).The Signing Life Science Dictionary (SLSD) and Signing Physical Science Dictionary (SPSD) are being funded in part by a grant from the National Science Foundation (DRL-1019542).

3   The IGERT Resource Center and the NSF IGERT Online Video and Poster Competition are funded by the National Science Foundation (DGE-0834992).

CLEAN is funded by grants from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NA12OAR4310143, NA12OAR4310142), the National Science Foundation (DUE-0938051, DUE-0938020, DUE-0937941) and the Department of Energy.

The Inquiry Project and Talk Science are funded by the National Science Foundation (DRL-0918435A).

July 1, 2013

Citizen Science, Engagement & the Changing Fells: A Chat with Brian Drayton (Pt. 2)

Kacy Karlen for TERCtalks

In continuation from Part I of “Citizen Science, Engagement, & the Changing Fells”, TERC’s Brian Drayton shared his thoughts in response to Carolyn Johnson’s recent special interest piece for The Boston Globe (in which he was quoted). We talked about the changing local landscape of the Middlesex Fells, Drayton’s field-altering Master’s thesis, “Plant species lost in an isolated conservation area in Metropolitan Boston from 1894 to 1993”; the role of citizen science; the vanishing boundary between ‘amateur’ and ‘professional’ science; and bringing back the joy to science engagement.

Eupatorium perfoliatum, Asteraceae, Common Boneset, inflorescences. Boneset was a rediscovered plant in the Middlesex Fells. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons

Eupatorium perfoliatum, Asteraceae, Common Boneset, inflorescences. Boneset was a rediscovered plant in the Middlesex Fells. Image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

TT: It sounds as though your reward is really in the evolution of the kind of research questions being asked—because that advances the field as a whole.

BD:  I certainly felt like “Oh darn, I got something wrong.” But I didn’t take it personally. And Bryan Hamlin didn’t take it personally either. He said, “Hey Brian, I think your data is off.”

An important thing to note in comparing the two studies is this—the respective questions we were trying to answer. My question was this: What’s the best way to preserve biological diversity? If the given method is setting aside land, how good is that in conservation and protecting biodiversity? It was an interesting question for me, as I was already starting to understand that there were no natural spaces immune to human influence—Bill McKibben’s book “The End of Nature” came around about the same time, and so the idea was proliferating. I had realized there were no pristine systems; we’re a species too; and human agency was becoming more and more important in preservation. In my study, I concluded that we had to become more intentional in preserving the flora and fauna of the Fells.

In terms of limitations—I had to determine how different the Fells was from 1893 to 1993, and I couldn’t do the whole thing. It was too big. I had to restrict. I ruled out certain species I couldn’t hope to identify—like grasses and sedges—knowing they were really important, as they are not highly mobile. The MDC didn’t allow me to take vouchers (a single sample of each plant I came across), so that was another limitation, as I didn’t have a catalogue. But truth be told, I never set out to do a comprehensive flora. I was really interested in trends. I knew my own limitations and the limitations of the study.

Hamlin and team—and he had a big team—set out to do a comprehensive flora. They spent 5 years on the study, got vouchers, deployed Boston expertise (one of the world’s experts on sedges lives in Boston), and made really great use of all their resources and collective knowledge, drawing on Harvard’s Gray Herbarium in addition to the New England Botanical Club’s herbarium. You can do a lot of research and homework before you head out. My study was conducted over 2 ½ field seasons—about 300 hours—and I was working full time.

TT: Your scopes of work were very different, topically—different in scale—but similar in that they shared an environment. Are there any other similarities between your respective studies?

BD: The findings that Hamlin and his team found were not irrelevant at all to mine as a commentary. In fact, they allowed us to refine our understanding. The trends we found in my paper are supported by Hamlin’s study—but what Hamlin’s study allows us to say is that the rate of change is different from what I found. His information is more accurate. We are submitting a piece to Rhodora discussing this commentary.

Another thing of interest is that in 1993-1996, the Fells seemed to be drying out. Species that occurred in moister areas seemed to be on decline. Even granting the weaknesses in my catalogue, that still seemed to be a trend of interest. Hamlin and his team reported that the Fells was getting wetter, which seems like an obvious contradiction. When I first read their paper, I figured they had just gotten it right and I had gotten it wrong, because they had put in so much more time. But after that study, I started a bunch of studies in the Fells creating plants and plant populations. This past year, I went out and tried to find some of my field sites. I had gone out informally over the years, but last year marked 15 years after the study had started. It seemed significant somehow. I had a sense that many of the populations I had started had died—and indeed, many of my field sites had been washed away, as we’ve had a lot of rain and flooding in the past few years. But what I saw last year was a change in precipitation that is happening due to climate change. Places like New England are having more varied precipitation tents. My sense is that the trend of the Fells becoming wetter is the result of an actual change happening over the past 25 years. So it was entirely possible that I was right in the 90s, and what Hamlin observed is right now, but the world has changed in between.

TT: How is citizen science crucial to your work at TERC, both past and present?

BD: People have said that the 21st century is the century of biology. The 20th century was the century of physics, and this century is the century of biology.  Whenever someone like Thomas Friedman says it—what they mean is biotechnology, molecular biology, nanobiology. And I think that this is wrong. My perception around this has very much shaped my work in evolving the life sciences programming at TERC. For the majority of the people around the globe, the biology that will be most important in the 21st century is ecology and evolutionary biology. Those are the sciences where understanding matters the most. I don’t want to take anything away from cures for malaria or science around the relief of misery, but more people could be affected positively by policy that’s based on a good understanding of ecology and evolution. Because of climate change, but also ocean acidification and habitat destruction and species loss.

People often forget that the loss of biodiversity—which would be happening without major climate change all by itself—is a dangerous trend, coupled with climate change. With the population rising and 40% of the world’s productivity being consumed by humans—the remaining 60% is divided among the biosphere with a net loss.  We’re just not 40% of the world.

And there is so much more to learn about critical interactions in biosystems and biology. Of the 1.7 million named species, the vast majority have only been named. We don’t know about their ecology or their biology in any great detail—even when it comes to really familiar organisms around here, like Monarch butterflies. This is where we need citizen science.

There are some kinds of science that couldn’t possibly be done without the citizen component. Universities simply can’t do it, as there isn’t enough money, freedom, and humanpower. We need more people becoming informed about the science and issues confronting us today, and offer them opportunities to get involved and do something about it. At TERC, we’re looking for ways to make active use of scientific learning. One is to participate in the creation of more knowledge. That’s where citizen science can be very powerful. You can contribute to a program dedicated to a better understanding of the world. There’s a real sense of being part of a movement, and you can keep continuously learning. And at a certain point, becoming an involved citizen scientist will shape the way you engage with the world. John Dewey’s definition of democracy is a collaborative, informed, intentional enterprise to make our society better for everybody. Citizen science fundamentally reinforces this notion of democracy in a deep way.

But more than that, participating in citizen science (and math) gives one a voice and a volition. You can take part in the process of authority in our society to some degree. But the best part is that if you find some science that matters to you, it increases your ability to live with joy. And that is the purpose of science education, I believe. We should encourage all of our students to participate in citizen science because they love something about the world; and that something inspires joy and wonder.

TT: Thank you, Brian. What a beautiful observation!

Stay tuned for more interviews with TERC staff, observations post-ISTE, and some feature articles on TERC project work.


April 9, 2013

Thoughts from the Field: A Non-Gamer in a Gaming World

What is it like being a non-gamer at the largest gaming event on the east coast? Particularly, what’s it like being a non-gaming, STEM education writer whose idea of a ‘good game’ started and ended with Myst at the largest gaming event on the east coast?

Three words: complete sensory overload.  Energy stores depleted. Game over!

Suffice it to say that PAX East was like nothing I had ever experienced before. The typical education conference trajectory of an orderly check-in followed by easy session scheduling did not apply…at all. Instead, taking in the PAX exhibit hall, play areas, and panels at the Boston Convention Center was like being thrust into Times Square on New Year’s Eve—if Times Square was overrun with fast-moving, fast-talking youngsters wearing backpacks and whizzing into lines amidst booming sound effects, flashing camera bulbs, and the smells of stale pizza and sugary carnival fare.

Games, gamers, and more gamers at PAX East...

Games, gamers, and more gamers at PAX East…

If I had been attending PAX for user research purposes, I would have been far too intimidated to even begin the process of conducting interviews. In actuality, I was attending PAX in the company of the EdGE team—TERC’s in-house group researching and designing robust science games that gamers like to play. This year, EdGE was checking PAX East out to examine the gaming landscape —and search out any  points of intersection between the education and gaming spheres.

As we learned from the not one; not two; but THREE packed panels that examined gaming and learning, there is widespread colloquial agreement among developers and gamers alike that games should be vehicles for meaningful learning, alternative assessment, and augmenting self-efficacy in underserved populations (including those with physical and cognitive disabilities ). However, we also learned that the development pathways, empirical research, and salient examples of educational, accessible, and fun-to-play games are few and far between…

…so what does that mean for TERC, and EdGE? Well—three panels about education-driven design at a trendy gamer-focused conference just served to solidify the value and prescient orientation of EdGE’s research and game development.

In fact, EdGE is about to release a couple of wireless games to engage high school students in physics and evolutionary biology while they play games like the ones they download from the App Store. EdGE collects data from these games to research learning, and recently joined an international team of U.S. and Finnish researchers investigating engagement in game-based learning (Project FUN).  They also attended and presented at GDC  a week or so ago.  It’s clear that their playable body of work truly is at the cutting-edge cusp of gaming and education. And now, excitingly, the hippest-of-hip gamers and developers are catching on!

For news, new games to test, and more goings-on from the EdGE team, be sure to check out:


March 28, 2013

“Join” EarthLabs Teacher Alison Mote on a Summer Scientific Research Expedition

This summer a team of scientists will embark on Expedition #341 aboard the JOIDES Resolution, an ocean drilling research vessel, to collect sediment samples from deep beneath the ocean floor off the south coast of Alaska. These sediments are expected to reveal valuable information about Earth’s geologic and climactic past, and to inform current scientific knowledge about the relationship between global climate change, tectonics, glacial advance and retreat cycles, paleo-ocean circulation, and Earth’s changing magnetic field.

The JOIDES (Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling)  seagoing research vessel that drills core samples and collects measurements from under the ocean floor, giving scientists a glimpse into Earth’s development...

The JOIDES (Joint Oceanographic Institutions for Deep Earth Sampling) seagoing research vessel that drills core samples and collects measurements from under the ocean floor, giving scientists a glimpse into Earth’s development. Image © JOIDES Resolution

Periodically, between May 29th and July 29th, Expedition #341 will be LIVE-broadcasted from ship-to-shore through real-time events and interactive Skype chats with on-board scientists, technicians, and crew. Since 2009, these live broadcasts have reached tens of thousands of students, teachers, and museum visitors nationwide, offering exposure to cutting-edge research and STEM careers. Students and teachers can get involved by signing up now for the live broadcast at  or by requesting a Skype chat with the team here. Sign up now, since these Skype chats are reserved on a first-come, first-served basis.

Notably, this year, Alison Mote, a teacher at the Ann Richards School for Young Women Leaders in Austin, TX, will join Expedition #341 as one of two Onboard Education Officers. An Environmental Science and engineering teacher, Alison has worked closely with TERC researchers in developing, field testing, and refining curriculum units for TERC’s EarthLabs   project. With Alison’s support, TERC will be developing a new EarthLabs unit that tells the story of the JOIDES Resolution research expedition #341 and addresses how scientists learn about long-term climate change through sediment sampling and analysis. To learn more about the EarthLabs project and modules, be sure to visit:


November 29, 2012

Q&A: Dr. Jodi Asbell-Clarke and Being Cutting ‘EdGE’, Leveling Up, and Making Project FUN

At TERCtalks, we’re excited to be kicking off a series of Q&As with PIs, PDs, and the other talented staff that make us tick out here in Cambridge. In our maiden Q&A voyage, I sat down to chat with Dr. Jodi Asbell-Clarke, an astrophysicist, educator, and Senior Principal Investigator (PI) who has been working at TERC for over 20 years developing online learning progressions, coursework, and curricula in the Earth and Space Sciences. In 2009, Jodi started the Educational Gaming Environments (EdGE) group to study science learning through ‘gamer-approved’ games. In the three years since, she and her team have developed and evaluated numerous transmedia games (including Martian Boneyards and Canaries in a Coalmine); presented at GLS (Games, Learning, Society), the Cyberlearning Research Summit, and Games for Change; published an extensive compendium of research papers; and picked up a lot of consoles and tablets to clock countless in-world hours. Here, Jodi talks with me about EdGE’s current work, favorite games, and what’s next from the ‘cutting-EdGE’…of STEM gaming research and development.

Jodi Asbell-Clarke of the Educational Gaming Environments (EdGE) group at TERC

TERCTalks: Hi Jodi. Would you mind starting off by telling us how learning and gaming fit together?

Jodi Asbell-Clarke: Our research within EdGE has focused on how games people play in their free-choice time (that is, in out-of-school or informal environments) can be leveraged for STEM learning outcomes. We’re not designing to the common notion of an “educational game”— we’re trying to design and evaluate young adult games that are highly challenging, immersive, and have compelling graphics and science-rich storylines that appeal even to seasoned gamers.

TT: Could you tell us a bit more about why ‘highly challenging’ games appeal to players?

JAC: I can. Seymour Papert coined the term ‘hard fun’ in relation to his studies in engagement and motivation in learning. ‘Hard fun’ defines an experience that is fun because it is hard. Translated into game design, that means designing a game that is persistently challenging but within grasp of the player to motivate them to keep playing. Interestingly, this notion encapsulates exactly what good teaching does as well. We are constantly thinking about the notion of ‘hard fun’ or how to make our games robust with advanced science content but simultaneously within grasp for our players.

TT: Can you share with us some familiar examples of young-adult games or game experiences (either of EdGE’s own creation or of familiar name) that have had positive results for the research you do?

JAC: I have two familiar examples that have informed the game development we’ve done in EdGE. The first is the Portal series. The Portal games really intrigued me as an educator and a budding gamer. Portal features an immersive first-person environment—and the way Valve developers have scaffolded the gaming experience to build on player knowledge for advancement mirrors formal educational pedagogy. Did I mention that Portal is extremely addictive? I actually spent a lot of time grinding at the game when I should have been finishing up my dissertation…

Another example is Angry Birds. With earlier versions of Angry Birds, you again have this engaging gaming model—so like Portal, you have an embedded mechanism that is highly addictive—especially in relation to players experiencing physics. But in the early games, the developers chose not to tweak the game content to include accurate laws of motion. So with Angry Birds—you have a cool model, but the physics was misleading.  That could be worse than not having physics content at all!

In short, Portal and Angry Birds are two different models we examined when thinking of how to design games that are exciting and compelling and—with good design—can ALSO be educationally substantive.

TT: Can you tell us about a current project EdGE is working on currently to design ‘exciting and educationally substantive’ games?

JAC: We’re working on a project called Leveling Up, in which we’re designing at least four games to support and measure standards-based high school science content. We’re currently recruiting players for a game called Impulse! that starts with a simple-but-effective structure similar to that of Angry Birds—players have to propel a ball into a net. That impetus doesn’t change, but ascending levels require players to contend with gravitational forces, electrical forces, and ambient “enemy” particles that change, move, obstruct paths, and are notably dictated by Newton’s Laws. So, we’re anticipating that students who play this game will not only be better predictors of physical laws when they encounter them in class, but will have that intimate experience with physics that they can leverage in the classroom and beyond. We are using really cool new methods to measure learning in these games. NSF has funded us to look at these games as innovative assessments that could be used in future learning environments.

TT: In another current project, you’re partnering with Finnish researchers to examine STEM learning and engagement in transmedia games. How did this partnership come about?

JAC: The National Science Foundation brought together a team of 15 US and 15 Finnish researchers from different institutions—all of whom were already funded by NSF, or the equivalent Finnish agency, to do ‘cutting edge’ research in STEM education. We met at the Finnish embassy for 2 days—to learn from each other, network, and design a collaborative project. At first, that seemed impossible, but magically, at the end of 48 hours, we had a blueprint for Project FUN—short for the “Finnish-US Network”.

Over the next 2 years and 4 meetings, we’ll be sharing and evaluating our tools and methodologies for looking at engagement and learning in transmedia gaming. Right now, our US partners are comprised of WGBH (who has designed online games and some augmented reality games for elementary age students), NIU (led by Brianno Coller, who has lead the design of highly creative games with creative outcomes for college students that rely on engineering problem-solving) and the EdGE team. Our Finnish partners are also experienced in game design for public school and university audiences. Interestingly, in their research, our Finnish partners use innovative methods such as sensory tracking—things like Computer-Human-Interaction devices to study eye movement and biofeedback to examine engagement. We are really excited to blend those methods into studies with our new forms of assessment of emergent learning in games that use educational data mining techniques. We think this could be a powerful new form of assessment that will change the way people think about STEM learning and assessment.

TT: What does the education climate look like in Finland in regards to school systems, assessments, etc.? How will this inform the Project FUN?

JAC: The Finnish educators I met in in Washington talked about entirely different measures used in their school system. They look more holistically at students’ learning experience. They measure “sense of purpose” and “wellbeing” in evaluating a learning activity or assessment.

Finland is interesting because it has repeatedly performed in the top three in international comparisons of education, such as PISA. They have extremely high standards for the teaching profession, and high respect and pay for teachers. They also focus on creativity, imagination, and individual initiative in their education system, and it seems to work!

We hope that FUN will help us all to ask the right questions going forward, use the most effective tools and methodologies for studying game-based learning from our studies and the Finnish studies to create some of the most innovative learning environments out there.

TT: Do you anticipate STEM-learning through gaming can be useful for underserved learners? Why?

JAC: This gets to the heart of my work as an educator. Most of the curriculum development work I’d been doing for the past 20 years only reaches a select audience—and doesn’t impact on a significant population of underserved learners. Through game design and development, I don’t have to go through schools or struggle with trying to reach those students with learning difficulties by offering up a traditional curriculum. I get a point of entry where many underserved learners already are. Actually, I was an apathetic student in the science classroom and lab early on, so I certainly understand the need for educational content that appeals to different learning styles and capabilities!

TT: So, what’s on the horizon for you and EdGE beyond Leveling Up and Project FUN?

JAC: We have a really strong team within EdGE. Beyond our game design and development work, we’re in the process of submitting a proposal to support teachers in using games as curricular examples in school environments through new toolsets and methodologies. We just submitted a proposal for a e-sports lab that would employ collaborative tools we’ve developed in our own games and engineering design challenges to create this participatory experience where players can design everything from prosthetics to parkour shoes. And of course, we need a couple more years to validate the learning outcomes in our current games and gameplay.

We want to get to the point where it’s evident that gaming can pass muster for real learning assessments. We have great partnerships with GameGurus, our evaluation team New Knowledge Organization, and other researchers like the University of Wisconsin with whom we are designing backend mechanisms to collect research data on players that can be integrated with school data. Ultimately, the goal of all of our work with EdGE is to build towards ubiquitous learning environments—through the measurement, tracking, and further validation of game-based learning.

For more information about EdGE, please visit the EdGE website, and connect with the team via their blog, Facebook and Twitter.

July 17, 2012

“A” is for Algebra, “E” is for Elementary; (E)(A)=The State of Current Research…

Linear algebra was always my mathematical strong suit—heavily relied upon, as it barely shrouded my thin quantitative undershirt. This surprised my artist mother somewhat. She had always assumed —visuospatial as I was—that I would be better matched to the more ‘creative’ study of geometry or even abstract algebra. But to me, linear algebra WAS creative, in a predictably pretty sort of way—its mastery relied on using elegant variables to represent the unknown—and each composition (equation) relied on the perfect visual balance between constants and variables.

When I did embark on the ‘creative’ territory of abstract algebra, I was confronted with polynomials, matrices, and an increasing amount of variables as compared to a dwindling amount of numbers. Suddenly, even my grasp of linear algebra became muddled and mired like a bad painting. ‘Creativity’ must have its bounds, because I still don’t particularly understand abstract algebra…or abstract art, really…

Rubik’s Cube group structure (abstract algebra) + Piet Mondrian’s abstract paintings=my confusion CUBED! Image courtesy of:

Truth be told, algebra was also my mathematical weak suit—full of holes at the seams. I had struggled with math throughout elementary school and middle school, relying on iterative reasoning and memorization to get me by where true number sense failed me—and I was an “A” student. Fortunately, researchers are now investigating how early algebra can be introduced to (and understood by) elementary students to prepare them for ‘big A’-Algebra.

Exploring Children’s Understanding of Functions (CUF) is one such initiative. CUF is a research collaboration between TERC and Tufts University exploring how children in grades K-2 understand functions as a context for early algebra. Project researchers have pilot tested teaching experiments among young elementary students, and have observed that K-2 graders are an optimal audience for grasping early algebra.

That’s right—5-7 year olds. So what is it about these tykes that make them so good at algebraic thinking?

It may be that K-2 graders don’t have a lot of mathematical baggage—that is, they don’t solve problems by relying on recursive relationships like many of their upper-elementary brethren (or, ahem, I) do. Early research observations suggest that they do not have strong aversions to or misconceptions about using variables—and seem to be equally at ease using symbolic notation (variables) and natural language to talk about math problems. And project researchers noted that the K-2nd graders in their sample were more likely to represent a function rule as an equation (e.g. R + R=V) rather than an expression using syncopated language. Wow!

So perhaps 5-7 year olds can be harnessed as truly ‘creative’ algebraic thinkers in newly-pressed (but maybe slightly oversized) mathematical strong suits. That sounds like a lot fewer holes for the budding mathematicians of tomorrow!

To learn more about Exploring Children’s Understanding of Functions, check out:

April 12, 2012

AERA Presentation Preview!

AERA’s Annual Meeting is one of the primary destinations for educational researchers to share their latest endeavors and innovations. This year, nearly 20 TERC staff members are attending to present sessions or strands. The theme of this year’s meeting is “Non Satis Scire: To Know Is Not Enough”—focusing on discussions and applications of scholarly research to improve education and serve the public good. Whether you’re headed to Vancouver this Friday (April 13th) through Tuesday (April 17th) for AERA or not, check out this roster of TERC presenters and abstracts:

Under the Microscope: Review of the Research on Biological Lab Experiences, 1987-2007     

Fri, Apr 13 – 12:00pm – 1:30pm; In Session: “High School Biology: Investigations in Learning and Instruction”; Presenters/Authors: Brian E. Drayton (TERC), Gillian M. Puttick (TERC), Meaghan Donovan (TERC)

  • Abstract: We report here on results from a study of the English-language, peer-reviewed research literature for the period 1987-2007 on life-science laboratory experiences. We explored to what extent the research literature addressed not only the learning of specific concepts but also the growth of biological reasoning, particularly with respect to characteristics of living systems that philosophers of biology have suggested are unique to biology. We asked To what extent does the research base: 1. Provide evidence of the value of labs to support learning for various constituencies of interest (e.g. students differing by gender, learning styles, ethnicity); 2. Address a range of topics across grade levels; 3. Show how labs foster biological reasoning with respect to distinctive characteristics of biological systems?

Elementary Students’ Recognition of Algebraic Structure: Not All Tasks Are Created Equal          

Sat, Apr 14 – 10:35am – 12:05pm; In Session: “Elementary Preparation for Learning Algebra Concepts”; Presenters/Authors: Isil Isler (University of Wisconsin – Madison), Ana C. Stephens (University of Wisconsin – Madison), Maria L. Blanton (TERC), Eric J. Knuth (University of Wisconsin), Timothy Marum (University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth), Angela Gardiner (University of Massachusetts – Dartmouth)

  • Abstract: This paper reports results from a written assessment given to 290 third-, fourth-, and fifth-grade students. We share and discuss students’ responses to items addressing their understanding of equation structure and the meaning of the equal sign. We found that while an operational view of the equal sign was predominant, some students were able to recognize underlying structure in arithmetic equations. The degree to which students were successful varied from task to task, with extremely “obvious” tasks such as 5 + 3 = ___ + 3 being more apt to elicit structure-based strategies. Our findings can inform early algebra efforts by identifying tasks that have the potential to help students begin to think about equations in a structural way.

English Language Learners and Mainstream Students Solving Multiple-Choice Science ‎Items With and Without Vignette Illustrations          

Sat, Apr 14 – 10:35am – 12:05pm; In Session: “Cognition and Assessment Paper Session”; Presenters/Authors: Rachel R. Kachchaf (TERC), Guillermo Solano-Flores (University of Colorado – Boulder)

  • Abstract: We compared how English language learners (ELLs) and monolingual English students ‎solved multiple-choice items administered with and without a new form of testing ‎accommodations—vignette illustration (VI). Thirty-six native Spanish-speaking English language ‎learners (ELLs), and 36 native-English speaking non-ELLs reported their thinking while ‎answering the items. Results from both qualitative and quantitative analyses show that ELLs ‎used a wider variety of actions oriented to understanding the items than non-ELLs. In contrast, ‎non-ELLs used a wider variety of problem solving strategies than ELLs. An interaction between ‎the characteristics of the students, the items, and the illustrations indicates a considerable ‎heterogeneity in the ways in which students from both linguistic groups thinking about and ‎respond to science test items.‎

Wiring Culture Circles: Fostering Intergenerational Dialogues on Providing Quality Education in America’s Public Schools

Sat, Apr 14 – 10:35am – 12:05pm; In Session: “Sociocultural Context of Schooling”; Presenters/Authors: Eli Tucker-Raymond (TERC), Christopher George Wright (TERC)

  • Abstract: The movement for Quality Education as a Constitutional Right (QECR) is a national grassroots effort to guarantee, a quality education for all citizens. To add our own thrust to the QECR movement, we brought together educators and students in an urban center to discuss what it meant to provide and experience quality education in the United States. We used a media text, the television show The Wire to help us attempt to read and transform our own sociocultural contexts of schooling and those of others. It discusses what the implications of such conversations might be in the quest to invigorate conversations about QECR.

Integrating Informal Education Experiences in K-12 Technology-Intense Teacher Professional Development              

Sat, Apr 14 – 2:15pm – 3:45pm; In Session: “Informal Settings as Spaces for Teacher Development”; Presenters/Authors: Cathlyn D. Stylinski (University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science), Caroline E. Parker (Education Development Center, Inc.), Carla M. McAuliffe (TERC)

  • Abstract: Innovative applications of technology offer many benefits but also significant challenges for K-12 classrooms. Our study explored approaches and perspective of technology-intense teacher professional development projects that incorporated informal education experiences to meet these challenges. During these experiences, teachers most typically had a mentoring role with youth. Some projects emphasized a more typical classroom instructor role; while others formed equal partnerships between teachers and youth or even had youth teach teachers. Most project leaders and teacher participants felt these experiences were critical, citing opportunities to practice and reflect on new approaches, develop deeper understanding, and gain confidence without classroom constraints. These findings align with other studies highlighting the benefits of these low-stakes environments for reform-based teaching.

Item Illustration Complexity and the Performance of English Language Learners in a Science Test       

Sun, Apr 15 – 10:35am – 12:05pm; In Session: “Large-Scale Assessments for Students With Disabilities and English Language Learners: Test Design and Student Characteristics”; Presenters/Authors: Chao Wang (University of Colorado – Boulder), Magda Yanira Chia (University of Colorado – Boulder), Rachel R. Kachchaf (TERC), Guillermo Solano-Flores (University of Colorado – Boulder)

  • Abstract: We address the need for enhanced practices that contribute to more valid and fair testing for English language learners (ELLs). We examine the formal properties of illustrations used in a science test and examine how those properties influence student performance. We tested ELLs and non-ELLs with 27 vignette-illustrated items whose illustrations were created systematically according to a procedure developed for such purpose. We will code the properties of the illustrations by using our coding system for examining characteristics of illustrations in science items (Author, 2011a, 2011b) and will measure their complexity. We will use regression analysis to examine the impact of item illustration complexity on student performance in science.

Reexamining the Links Between Curriculum and Instruction for Latina/o Mathematics Learners           

Sun, Apr 15 – 12:25pm – 1:55pm

Session Participants: Chair: Craig J. Willey (Indiana University – Indianapolis);

“Moving From Knowing to Doing: Teachers Developing Mathematics Discourse Communities With Latinas/os”, Craig J. Willey (Indiana University – Indianapolis); “Strengthening the Links Between Curriculum and Instruction for Latina/o Mathematics Learners”, Kathleen Pitvorec (University of Illinois at Chicago), Lena Licon Khisty (University of Illinois at Chicago), Craig J. Willey (Indiana University – Indianapolis); “Enhancing Mathematics Curricula and Instruction to Facilitate Latino English Language Learners’ Success: A Case Study of Juan”, Kathryn B. Chval (University of Missouri), Rachel J. Pinnow (University of Missouri), Amanda Thomas (University of Missouri); “The Rise and Run of a Procedural Approach in Discussions about Slope”, William Carl Zahner (Boston University)

Discussant: Beth M. Warren (Cheche Konnen Center, TERC)

  • AbstractDespite decades of educational reform efforts for Latina/o students, their mathematical performance – as measured by standardized tests – has persistently lagged behind other demographic sub-groups (Gandara & Contreras, 2009). New approaches are needed to translate what we know about effective curriculum and instruction for bilingual Latina/o learners, into concrete actions in the classroom. This symposium reports on four studies that will help us better understand how to support teachers and students as they navigate the world of language-rich mathematics curriculum and pedagogy. We will describe the struggles of practicing mathematics teachers of Latina/o students and discuss how we bridge educational theory and practical applications in curriculum and classroom instruction.

When and Where I Enter: Preservice Teachers’ Acknowledging and Understanding Their Positionality

Mon, Apr 16 – 10:35am – 12:05pm; In Session: “The Impact of Teacher Reflexivity on Student Achievement”; Presenters/Authors; Brian L. Wright (TERC), Felicity A. Crawford (Wheelock College)

  • AbstractAchieving the status of highly qualified teacher cannot be limited to technical competence and knowledge of subject matter alone, but must also include a deliberate and purposeful focus on the development of candidates’ racial and cultural awareness, multicultural consciousness, and positionality. This paper discusses an assignment used in a graduate teacher education program titled, “Location, Location, Location” designed to help pre-service teachers’ locate their positionality and interrogate their racial and cultural attitudes and beliefs.

The Interaction Between Design and Experience in an Online, Interactive Poster Competition                   

Mon, Apr 16 – 4:05pm – 5:35pm; In Session: “Division C Section 7 Technology Research Poster Session”; Presenters/Authors: Joni K. Falk (TERC), Rena Stroud (TERC), Kathryn Hobbs (TERC), Brian E. Drayton (TERC)

  • AbstractThis paper describes an innovative, interactive, virtual poster competition ( created for the National Science Foundation’s IGERT (Integrative Graduate Education and Research and Traineeship) Program, and discusses the benefits and drawbacks of having poster competitions online as opposed to face-to-face. It explores the breadth, depth, and nature of participation, participants assessment of the online experience compared to traditional poster sessions, and last the effect of structuring this event as a competition as opposed to a poster session, on presenters who were selected as finalists, as well as on presenters who were not. This study examines the interactions between format (online vs. face-to face), context (competition vs. poster session), and the perceptions of the experience by participants.

From Caring Comes Courage: Enactments of Caring to Support Women of Color in STEM

Tue, Apr 17 – 10:35am – 12:05pm; In Session: “Science, Engineering, and Technology: Changing the Way We Teach and Learn in the Classroom”; Presenters/Authors: Apriel K. Hodari (Council for Opportunity in Education), Irene Anastasia Liefshitz (Harvard University), Lily Ko (TERC), Maria (Mia) Ong (TERC), Carol A. Wright (City University of New York)

  • Abstract: It is said that justice is what love looks like in public. While “love” is rarely an explicit focus of educational research, few would argue with the idea that educators enact their caring by providing opportunities for all students, particularly women and students of color. In this way, Science, Technology, Engineering, and Mathematics (STEM) support programs may be interrogated through a lens of justice and caring. In this paper, we present an analysis of four postsecondary STEM support programs whose leadership enacts social justice and deep caring, and discuss whether their modes of practice link to success for women of color in STEM.

Seeding Social Norms About Energy Conservation Among Girl Scouts         

Tue, Apr 17 – 10:35am – 12:05pm; In Session: “Social and Personal Connections to Informal Learning”; Presenters/Authors: Debra Bernstein (TERC), Gillian M. Puttick (TERC), Polly Hubbard (TERC)

  • AbstractEnergy conservation and awareness are increasingly important goals for youth and community programs. This study examined whether sharing a social norm message (SNM) with Girl Scouts who had recently completed an energy conservation program would impact their energy use and related attitudes. Thirty-seven girls (aged 11-14) participated in the study. Results suggest that the SNM was effective in maintaining post-program energy conservation behaviors for participants already dedicated to conservation (as indicated by behavior reported at baseline), but not for those with low dedication. The impact of the SNM on attitudes was influenced by participants’ strength of connection to Girl Scouts. This study makes a contribution by expanding the use of SNM to promote conservation behavior in adolescents.

Developing Middle School Teachers’ Understandings About Scientific Inquiry and Investigations: A Case of Formal-Informal Partnerships               

Tue, Apr 17 – 2:15pm – 3:45pm

Session Participants:“Learning Science as Inquiry With the Urban Advantage: Project Overview”,  Patricia S. Bills (Michigan State University); “Development and Use of Teaching Case Materials”, Suzanne Elgendy (American Museum of Natural History); “Providing Opportunities for Teachers to Learn About Scientific Inquiry and Investigation”, Jamie N. Mikeska (Michigan State University); “The Contribution of Professional Development Resources to Teachers’ Understandings about Scientific Inquiry and Investigations and Teachers’ Instructional Practice”, Robyn A. Carlson (Michigan State University); “Integrating the Resources of Informal Science Institutions and Formal Science Education: Facilitating Partnerships and Building Knowledge”, Kenne A. Dibner (Michigan State University)

Chair: Suzanne M. Wilson (Michigan State University)

Chair: James B. Short (American Museum of Natural History)

Discussant: Ann Rosebery (TERC)

  • Abstract: This symposium focuses on a collaborative development and research project centered on advancing our knowledge of the role informal science education institutions can play in enhancing science literacy for middle school teachers, students, and administrators. In particular, we detail the development and use of a teaching case (including text, video, and web components), as well as research to study the effects of this case-based, science-specific professional development on teachers’ understanding of scientific investigations and their classroom practice. Our work adds to the accumulating body of empirical research exploring the effects of professional development.