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In Touch With Molecules: Extending Learning With Cyber-Enabled Tangibles

Note: This WestEd project was completed in 2016.

In Touch With Molecules: Extending Learning With Cyber-Enabled Tangibles brings together researchers in cognition and student learning, practicing scientists, and educators to investigate how cyber-enabled tangibles promote different and improved ways for high school and college students to learn core concepts in molecular biology.

This project is a collaboration between WestEd and The Scripps Research Institute and is funded by the National Science Foundation (NSF) as a Research and Evaluation on Education in Science and Engineering (REESE) grant.

In Touch With Molecules builds on the groundbreaking work of Arthur Olson at Scripps. Olson directs the development of tangible molecular models that are augmented with computer-generated imagery and data.

As a working scientist, Olson uses computer autofabrication to create tangible models of complex biological molecules (e.g., HIV, DNA, hemoglobin) and develops computer software that allows researchers to interact with the tangible models using webcams and augmented reality. Applying these technologies to education settings has the potential to transform the teaching of molecular biology.

Intellectual Merit

The In Touch With Molecules: Extending Learning With Cyber-Enabled Tangibles studies will test claims that cyber-enabled tangible molecular models promote different and improved ways of learning molecular biology content and enable the teaching of science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM) content that would not otherwise be addressed. The research will identify core molecular biology concepts that can be effectively conveyed with these technologies; whether students at different education levels, high school and college, benefit from the materials; whether cyber-enabled tangibles are usable and feasible in current instructional practice; and whether the cyber-enabled tangibles produce learning and engagement.

Study results will inform both the design of education technologies and basic research about the influence of multimodal materials for student learning in complex domains involving spatial information and dynamic processes.

Broader Impacts

As this project addresses a critical need in education, targets a content area of growing significance in our society, and leverages technological advances, the potential impact is enormous.

American students are underperforming on national and international science tests. As biology can set the tone for students’ engagement in science courses throughout their secondary education, instructional interventions that promote deep learning and motivation may make a large difference.

Further, the content area of this project — molecular biology — has far-reaching implications for medicine, pharmacology, agriculture, ecology and other disciplines. As molecular science increases in prominence, there is a growing need for effective education materials and methods that provide scaffolding for molecular science. Cyber-enabled tangibles may offer students spatial and functional insights into the importance of molecular shape and interactions.

This project also leverages advances in computing and human-computer interaction that have led to the emerging field of augmented reality (AR). These technical advances have fostered the proliferation of AR applications, in which real-world objects and actions merge seamlessly with computer input and output. The proposed studies will address the affordances of these technologies in instructionally relevant settings.