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Lab explores the story behind the technology

November 8, 2017

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When Tanzanian students opened up their boxes and lined up tiny screws to construct robots, it didn't matter they had never seen a robot before. Instead, those small parts, and the story they connected with, made a big impact on how the middle-schoolers viewed mathematics and science.

The lessons, taught over a week by students from a South Korean university, were the brainchild of RAIL, or Research and Innovation in Learning, a research lab housed in the College of Education's Department of Career and Information Studies. RAIL conceives innovative ways to deliver lessons to students, from primary school to higher education.

Along with case-based learning modules for medical students, another key aspect of RAIL's research is integrating robotics into the classroom. As a result, researchers have created modules for grades two through five that are self-contained and easily work with other parts of the grade's curriculum, giving teachers flexibility in planning and implementing the lessons.

"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 Ikseon Choi, professor and director of RAIL. "We will not take on any project unless we can foresee a sustainable impact."

RAIL 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.

"RAIL's name is deliberate—how are we going to expand out and think about research and innovation in learning?" says Janette Hill, a professor who works with the lab's medical team to conduct professional development in higher education. "If it involves technology, great. But if it doesn't, that's fine too."

Sometimes, group members may be working on one problem and realize they have solutions for others. For example, while working on the fifth-grade robotics curriculum, researchers found 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,'" says T.J. Kopcha, an associate professor who is leading robotics education at RAIL. "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."