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Lab's projects find sustainable solutions to real-world educational puzzles

Kristen B. Morales

October 23, 2017

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There are no test tubes or beakers in the College of Education's RAIL lab. There are no lab coats. And while most labs create a hypothesis and work toward a solution, researchers here already know what they want to achieve—they instead spend their time trying to get there.

Welcome to the Research and Innovation in Learning lab, a research lab housed in the College of Education's department of career and information studies that aims to find sustainable solutions to real-life educational problems. Rather than coming up with theories and testing them to see how they work, faculty and student researchers here consider classroom issues educators face every day, and try to find better ways to solve them.

"Whenever we do research, we want to achieve both theoretical and pragmatic goals in a way that will have a meaningful impact on our local and global communities," says Ike Choi, professor and director of RAIL. "We always establish a project based on important societal issues, sound research questions, feasible innovation, and sustainable dissemination. So we will not take on any project unless we can foresee a sustainable impact."

Ideas can start with a "what if" question, and then the team weighs the impact of the solution. Other times, researchers blend new technologies with instruction to help teachers. Current projects take on big-picture questions—"What if we learned more from our mistakes?"—as well as practical, hands-on technologies such as robotics in the classroom.

Professor Janette Hill, who co-directs the lab's health professions education research team, echoes the sustainable mindset. Her goal, she says, is to look at themes that not only can be scaled up or down, but also can be multidisciplinary, involving knowledge from other colleges at the University of Georgia or elsewhere.

"RAIL's name is deliberate—how are we going to expand out and think about research and innovaiton in learning? If it involves technology, great. But if it doesn't, that's fine too," she says. "And then we've also done a lot of professional development work with faculty to help them improve their teaching practices by going into classrooms or working with them one-on-one."

RAIL's lab space brings together faculty from different disciplines within the department, allowing them to work together more easily than if they were sequestered in separate offices. This means faculty with expertise in workforce education and designing educational systems congregate in large rooms, lined in dry-erase boards, to encourage conversations and idea sharing.

The result is an incubator for new ideas to improve all levels of education, one project at a time.

For example, the RAIL team took on robotics. They began with a partnership with a local school district that resulted in curriculum modules that could be inserted into different grade levels. This project then spread in two directions—professional development for teachers, showing them ways they can integrate robotics to support STEM-related lessons, and also classroom modules that could be adapted by schools and classrooms around the world, integrating mathematics, earth science and literacy with lesson plans that are available in multiple languages.

John Mativo, an associate professor, is now working on translating the robotics curriculum into Swahili, for use in schools in Tanzania; it's already available in Spanish, Chinese, and Korean. He also runs TEAMS, Teen Engineering in Math and Science, a component of RAIL that brings students from across Georgia to compete in an annual engineering competition.

His colleague, professor Roger Hill, is expanding the reach of the robotics curriculum in Greece, working with the nonprofit organization eduACT, and also coaching teachers, both in the United States and abroad, in robotics and STEM-related instruction.

Janette Hill also works in areas of professional development and best practices for teaching. One of her recent projects focused on the UGA-Augusta University medical partnership to integrate new technologies into the learning environment. As a result, faculty not only learned new teaching methods, but also learned a more efficient way to access patient data and other information.

"This was a new technology—many of them might have accessed things through their phone, through a secure network, but now they have this tablet that's bigger and they can see things better, and they are going to integrate this with their students," she says. "But then they ask, 'How can I use this with my patients and also use it as a teaching tool for my students?'"

Thus, the expertise of RAIL faculty comes into play both in designing curriculum and instruction, and also in using technology to deliver the lesson.

"For some of the medical partnership faculty, this is a brand-new model for how they roll out medical education. They have challenges, we go in and observe and we have one-on-one sessions with them for everything from delivery to making a PowerPoint presentation so it's clear to the students," Janette Hill added. "It's innovative for them because it's brand new, but they are not trained in pedagogy—they are trained to be amazing doctors. So how can we help them bring this new technology into their practice too? How can they take that information and teach it to others? And that has a direct impact in the classroom."

Mativo and Roger Hill also stress that schools should not be limited in their instruction because of lack of funding to purchase equipment such as robotics. RAIL researchers look across a spectrum of schools, Mativo says, from those who have hardly any funds to purchase materials to those who are in a position to donate them to others. This also connects with the overarching theme Mativo pursues, which is in using engineering to solve problems.

"We believe engineering design is one of the best ways of learning because it engages the student to determine and define carefully the problem to be solved, find if solutions already exist, search for possible solutions under given constraints and optimize the solution," he says. "Robots are created and designed as part of solutions to given problems. It helps students to put on their problem-solving caps in a systematic manner—RAIL seeks to promote this through this type of engineering-design process."

RAIL researchers are also creating case-based learning modules for medical students at UGA's College of Veterinary Medicine and College of Pharmacy as well as a university in South Korea. And a new partnership with Emory University and the National Institutes of Health will develop a career-coaching system to broaden the options and tools that health professionals have in their career development. "Janette Hill, (professor) Jay Rojewski and myself are working with Emory University's College of Nursing and our College of Pharmacy faculty to develop a prototype," says Choi. "So, we're going to bring all these resources to the area of professional education, and we will collaborate and leverage all our resources to have a more impactful project."

The bottom line, says T.J. Kopcha, an associate professor who is leading robotic education research at RAIL, believes that RAIL projects require a higher level of commitment than your typical curriculum development. But because these ideas all have shared connections, they build off each other and grow in different ways, at different times.

"Part of the way learning, design and technology faculty train—and it's what our field is good at—is figuring out where the problem is and how we can fix it with new technology," says Kopcha. "Often you see a new thing in the classroom and teachers may not know or realize how to use it for learning—that's where our brains wrap around the problem."

Sometimes, the group may be working on one problem, and realize they have solutions for others. For example, while working on the fifth-grade robotics curriculum, researchers realized ideas for second-, third- and fourth-grade modules. So, when it came time to expand the robotics module to those grades, there was already a framework in place.

"Sometimes educational research is about proving what's better; we tend to steer away from that type of research because our questions are more about 'how,'" Kopcha adds. "I think part of it is the story we're interested in telling. With robotics, it's less about proving or disproving a theory and instead about studying how the theory fits within a context—that story can improve teaching practice while at the same time inform our understanding of learning."