What happens when you combine eleven grade six students, one master teacher, an embedded phenomena simulation called HelioRoom (Moher et al., 2005; Moher, 2008), five Motorola Xoom tablets with a custom built app that enable students to share their observations and theories with their peers and teacher on an shared display? We began investigating this question earlier this week, when we ran two preliminary trials in an effort to determine if our lab could design and build an android app that enables students to build community knowledge about a science curriculum topic, using a hand-held, mobile technology. The conceptual framework that we are developing through our research is Knowledge Community and Inquiry (Slotta & Peters, 2010, 2009; Najafi and Slotta, 2009; 2010).
In HelioRoom, students are asked to imagine that the sun is located in the centre of their classroom. Students view nine planets displayed on the four walls of their classroom, represented by equally sized and differently coloured spheres. The planets are visible on four monitors, one on each wall. Because the screens act as portholes, planets are no longer in view when they leave the monitors. This can make it challenging to collect observation data about the slower moving planets. By taking note of the occlusion relationships of the planets, as well as their relative speed, students form hypotheses about the identity of the planets. The students were given 1.5 hours to solve the puzzle.
We view this run as a major milestone for our lab because it was our first implementation of the S3/XMPP framework. It was thrilling to watch student observations and theories appear on the tablets and on the shared display, in real time. Observation tallies appeared on the tablets and on the large display. As patterns began to emerge in the data, the teacher asked the class to focus on the SMART board. If inconsistencies appeared in the data, the teacher initiated a class discussion about how they could be resolved. Students used a variety of strategies to solve the problem, including discussing their theories with their peers and using a measuring tape to measure the speed of the slower planets. If there were gaps in the observation data, they became apparent on the shared display; the teacher used the aggregated information to draw the students’ focus to planets that needed further consideration. After several more minutes of observation, students entered hypotheses about the identity of the planets on their tablets. Colour-coded text bubbles that corresponded with the colour of the planet under discussion appeared on the large format display. As soon as the students added evidence that supported or contradicted an hypotheses, it appeared on the large screen. Using the touch interface, the teacher moved the text bubbles around the screen, clustering similar ideas, and isolating incongruities.
From our perspective, the integration of HelioRoom with the newly designed android app worked beautifully. Students used tablets to share observations, ideas and theories with their peers. The aggregated information appeared on the tablets and on the shared display. The teacher used the touch display to direct the problem solving activity towards a successful outcome. The children appeared to be motivated and engaged throughout the activity. In the coming days and weeks we will carefully consider the design elements that worked, and take these findings into the next phase of our research.
This first trial represents the preliminary stage of a three-year design-based research study. This joint collaboration between Tom Moher and his group at the University of Illinois in Chicago (UIC), and the Encore Lab, from OISE at the University of Toronto will continue this summer, as we work with a vice-principal and two veteran grade six teachers to design a new android app to support students in their discovery of WallCology, an embedded phenomena simulation that explores the biodiversity of “bugs”, developed by Tom Moher and his group at UIC. We will work closely with them to further develop the simulation, thinking deeply about how curriculum content is represented in the embedded phenomenon. The work will be enacted at the Dr. Eric Jackman Institute for Child Study, in Toronto.