EXP: Advancing Early STEM Learning through Haptic Feedback Displays

PIs: Anne Marie Piper, Ellen Wartella, J. Edward Colgate
Northwestern University
Award Details

Improving Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics (STEM) education is a national priority. Children in the U.S. have continued to fall behind their international peers in math and science scores on international assessments. Not only are students behind in STEM concepts, but they also show less interest in STEM learning. While much of the focus on STEM learning has occurred in grades K-12, an important area of STEM education involves improving math and science literacies at the pre-kindergarten (pre-K) level. Young children have the natural capacity to explore and understand STEM concepts in everyday life, and learning these early skills affects later development. In parallel, another trend in early learning involves the growing use of tablet computers in both formal and informal educational settings. However, little is known about how tablets support learning, particularly in STEM. Understanding the conditions under which digital tools may promote early STEM learning is an important topic of study given the pervasiveness of tablet technology and that tablet-based content can potentially increase learner engagement. One argument against purely digital content on a tablet computer, however, is that tactile cues and sensory experiences important for STEM learning are now lost. This project examines whether the emerging technology of haptic — or tactile feedback — touch-screen displays can improve preschoolers’ learning of science concepts. The results will contribute to theories of how young children learn with electronic media as well as offer design guidance for the creation of developmentally appropriate content using novel haptic feedback displays. This research will lay the foundation that will enable other researchers to examine learning outcomes associated with this new media as it grows in commercial availability.

Research on child development emphasizes the need for children to have multiple modes to engage in science learning, and haptic displays may be one way to add an additional mode of interaction to traditional touchscreens and create a more immersive, embodied learning experience. The PIs will conduct human-centered design of new haptic science learning applications, which will involve preschool STEM education experts in the creation of these novel materials and two large-scale laboratory experiments that will assess the effectiveness of haptic feedback in tablet-based learning. Results will contribute new knowledge of (1) how to design educational media leveraging surface haptic displays and (2) the conditions under which this technology effectively promotes learning and engagement among young children. The PIs will make the developed applications openly available for use by other researchers and disseminate our results through interdisciplinary venues in children’s media and development, human-computer interaction, and engineering of haptic technology. Project web site will provide information on the project and access to privacy-protected experimental data and software artifacts.

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