Executive Skills & Strategy

‘Embodied Learning’ Blends Movement, Computer Interaction

By Mike Bock — October 09, 2012 4 min read
Students from Elizabeth Forward Middle School in Elizabeth, Pa., play a math game in the SMALLab, or Situated Multimedia Art Learning Lab, where they use images projected on the floor to create a huge game board. The school is one of six across the country using the new platform to make curricular content more interactive. The lab, which uses movement-tracking cameras, is set up in a previously unused classroom at the school.
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Zachary Benedek usually can’t wait for science class to be over. But when he learns about concepts like light and gravity in a 15-square-foot digitally enhanced laboratory called the SMALLab, he doesn’t want the period to end.

Waving a wand in front of colors and circles projected on the floor of the lab, he and his classmates worked together recently to blend colors in a unit on the electromagnetic spectrum for science class.

“It’s a lot more fun. You get it, and when you do it with your hands, it seems a lot simpler,” said Zachary, a 6th grader at Elizabeth Forward Middle School in Elizabeth, Pa.

Last month, the school built one of the nation’s first “embodied learning” labs, a technological platform that combines learning sciences and human-computer interaction by incorporating students’ body movements into the lesson. For example, a student learning about chemistry would be able to grab and combine molecules in a virtual flask projected on a floor mat through the use of motion-capture cameras that sense movement and body position.

‘Embodied Learning’

The basic idea behind embodied learning is that students who fully use their bodies to learn are more engaged in the lesson than they would be simply sitting at a desk or computer. The SMALLab, or Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab, was developed by Arizona State University professors and aims to incorporate blended learning into traditional classroom lessons with the help of educational technology.

On the surface, the SMALLab seems similar to Microsoft’s Kinect, a camera peripheral sold as an attachment to the XBOX 360 video-game platform that is now being used in some classrooms. But while Microsoft’s motion-capture gaming technology is typically used for physical education and special education, the SMALLab hosts lessons in core subjects like math and science.

Elizabeth Forward Middle School is one of six schools in the nation to use the SMALLab. Housed in what was once an unused classroom at the school, the SMALLab contains mounted cameras, a projector, a computer, and a large mat to stand on. Participating students are given a wand to help control an individual learning game, or scenario. Each teacher was given instruction on how to use the technology in a one-day training seminar at the beginning of the school year.

Ways to Engage

David Birchfield, a music professor at ASU, in Tempe, and one of SMALLab’s creators, said development for the lab began in 2005 as a way to bring together a number of disciplines to address the challenges of K-12 learning. By combining concepts like kinetic learning and collaborative learning, students are able to absorb information more effectively, he said.

“Different ways of engaging students is really critical to the concept,” said Mr. Birchfield.

The SMALLab runs scenarios that students can play using their bodies and images displayed on surfaces throughout the lab. Graduate students from the entertainment-technology program at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh partnered with Elizabeth Forward’s teachers to develop the scenarios and are in the process of developing more for the platform.

The SMALLab’s scenarios allow teachers to focus on particular concepts within subject material. While many of the lessons deal with learning in the stem subjects—science, technology, engineering, and math—Mr. Birchfield cited a scenario that involves students’ bodies symbolically filling in for a character in a novel. If they want to access information about their characters’ thought processes, for example, students tap their own heads, or for content about characters’ emotions, they touch their own hearts.

“Some content seems to lend itself more to embodiment, but just about everything can be taught in an embodied way,” said Mina Johnson-Glenberg, an ASU professor of psychology and the co-founder of SMALLab Learning LLC, a for-profit company based in Los Angeles that creates and disseminates embodied-learning models for middle and high schools.

With a cost of $35,000, the SMALLab isn’t exactly cheap, but Forward Middle School had some help. The school received a $20,000 grant from the Allegheny Intermediate Unit, a branch of the Pennsylvania Department of Education, as part of a STEM initiative. The 2,600-student Elizabeth Forward school district paid the remaining $15,000.

Need for Research Seen

Christopher Dede, a professor of learning technologies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education, said embodied learning has potential, but there is little academic evidence to suggest the results are conclusively worth the cost, as the field has not yet been thoroughly researched.

Mr. Dede added that he hopes districts that use embodied learning contribute research to the field.

Since the lab at Elizabeth Forward Middle School was completed just a few months ago, there is no clear indication of its effectiveness in improving students’ test scores. But Principal Michael Routh said he has received positive feedback on the SMALLab from students and teachers, and he believes physical activity could help boost engagement among students.

“When you give students a chance to get out of their seats, they really seem to enjoy the lessons,” he said.

Mr. Routh envisions someday sharing the scenarios with other schools that create their own embodied-learning labs.

A version of this article appeared in the October 10, 2012 edition of Education Week as On Interactive Platform, Students Use Mind and Body


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