Lab Report XIX

In this series of posts I have primarily focused on the of research technologies, either on the verge of being developed or currently available, technologies that will improve the lives of architecture and design professionals as well as other interested adults. On occasion I did look at innovations focused on children. Columbia University’s Institute for Learning Technologies (ILT) belongs to this category. Each project uses advanced technology to promote better teaching and learning tools for grade school students. All of them use “embodied cognition” to foreground their research efforts. The theory is that concepts are more deeply grasped through a combination of visualization and an ability to “mentally animate” physical and visual entities.

LEGO Mindstorms NXT 2.0, images via

There is for example, the subject of science and how to help elementary school students understand difficult concepts, specifically those that relate to physicality. So the researchers asked themselves, how do children learn about physicality? Can their learning be influenced with the aid of programmable robots they, themselves, can manipulate?

In the project GEAR, Grounded Embodied Agent Robots, the goal is to improve students’ engagement with basic physical scientific concepts. Using the LEGO Mindstorms NXT robots, researchers are teaching kids the concepts of force, mass, speed, distance, and friction. Normally, these lessons are reserved for more advanced classes, such as high school physics. (The research teams controlled for factors such as age, gender, and previous exposure to the scientific concepts being taught.)

By using readily available robots already familiar to elementary school students the researchers did not need to spend time developing an entirely new device but could concentrate on finding the best teaching methods and investigating student responses to different approaches. Furthermore, lessons taught within the aid of a cool “toy” get the kids away from the sterile “scientific” environment.

LEGO Mindstorms NXT to teach programming, image via

How to teach elementary school students programming concepts? The LEGO Mindstorms NXT robot provides the answer once more. HEAT, Handheld Embodied-cognition Augmented-reality Technology, teaches programming skills and also uses the idea of embodiment to frame the teaching strategies.

In this case researchers were looking for ways to improve students’ “understanding of distance, time, and rate” through “technology-based interventions” that primarily involve hand-held devices for programming a robot’s movements. Ultimately, the goal was to improve learning by deploying embodiment principles, either directly, as when the students act like the robot and mimic the movements they, themselves, have programmed the robot to do. The other form of embodiment is through a surrogate, a handheld device that controls the robot.

The hope is that the embodiment framework will improve the new generation’s ability to understand basic scientific concepts, from robotic programming to concepts in physics, like force and mass.

Sherin Wing writes on social issues as well as topics in architecture, urbanism, and design. She is a frequent contributor to Archinect, Architect Magazine and other publications. She is also co-author of The Real Architect’s Handbook. She received her PhD from UCLA. Follow Sherin on Twitter at @xiaying.

Previous Lab Reports

Lab Report

Lab Report II

Lab Report III

Lab Report IV

Lab Report V

Lab Report VI

Lab Report VII

Lab Report VIII

Lab Report IX

Lab Report X

Lab Report XI

Lab Report XII

Lab Report XIII

Lab Report XIV

Lab Report XV

Lab Report XVI

Lab Report XVII

Lab Report XVIII

Categories: Technology