Students Showcase Innovative Tech Learning Projects

Students Showcase Innovative Tech Learning Projects

Amalia DonovanAmalia Donovan explains her project

Inspired by her love for Pokémon Go, Northwestern University graduate student Amalia Donovan created an educational tool to help middle school gamers level up through the use of statistics.

Donovan, a programming novice who is pursuing her doctorate in learning sciences in the School of Education and Social Policy, simulated how Pokéman Go creatures spawn in particular environments using a software program called NetLogo.

“Players can test which Pokeman spawned and how often, so they can plan strategies to catch all the species,” Donovan said.

Donovan was one of eight graduate students who recently demonstrated a final project for the class “Design of Technological Tools for Thinking and Learning,” taught by NetLogo creator Uri Wilensky, professor of learning sciences and computer sciences.

The learning sciences class included both master’s and doctoral level students, and most had little programming experience. The students were challenged with designing and creating software and curriculum, using new technology-based learning materials.

“First they had to learn programming and digital design; then they had to build useful learning environments in the real world that would be hard to do without technology,” said Wilensky, director of the Center for Connected Learning & Computer-Based Modeling. “It’s an ambitious, demanding class.”

Students devised a variety of curriculum ideas, ranging from climate change to financial literacy. Mark Diaz, a doctoral student in technology and social behavior, created a predatory bank lending simulation game based on the 2008 housing crisis. Diaz, who studied human computer interaction at Stanford University, said his project could be used as an introductory economics course for middle and high school students.

Katie George, who was finishing her master’s degree in computer science – but had little experience with learning sciences – devised “Multiplication World” to help students create their own multiplication tables rather than using rote memorization.

The class was unlike any she had previously taken as a computer science student, she said. “There was more emphasis on the content behind what you’re building,” George said. “It was constructionist; instead of listening to a lecture, we were building and making things ourselves.”

First-year PhD student David Bar-El used his undergraduate experience as a psychology major to design “C-More: A NetLogo Toolkit for Learning about Vision,” a computational model of receptors in the eye.

“A lot of psychology students find that learning about sensation can be overwhelming,” said Bar-El, who may be able to test his project with a former professor’s class in Israel. “If they can play around with this model beforehand and make predictions, it could help lessen their aversion to it.”

Bar-El said the class made him more comfortable with programming and taught him an important life skill.

“I had to learn how to ask for help; especially when I wanted to convey my ideas through programming,” he said.

Donovan, who said she plays Pokéman Go daily, called her project “One Snorlax Does Not a Spawn Point Make.”

 “I wanted to show that a single instance of something isn’t necessarily indicative of a larger phenomenon,” Donovan said. “There’s a lot of math in the game that’s either taken for granted or only comes out if you play a lot or want to level up faster. I thought my project was an interesting real-world application for statistics, my favorite subject.” 

The Learning Sciences PhD program in the School of Education and Social Policy, which accepted its first students in 1992, was the first of its kind in the nation.

By Julie Deardorff
Last Modified: 3/20/17