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MSU researchers win $445,000 to develop curriculum to improve spatial intelligence of middle schoolers

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Along with other researchers, Montana State University students, from left, Amanda Kotila, Elaine Westbrook, MSU associate education professor Nicholas Lux, Cotton Real Bird and Clarissa De Leon are working to develop a curriculum based on Minecraft. Along with other researchers, Montana State University students, from left, Amanda Kotila, Elaine Westbrook, MSU associate education professor Nicholas Lux, Cotton Real Bird and Clarissa De Leon are working to develop a curriculum based on Minecraft.

BOZEMAN – Montana State University researchers, with funding from a new grant, hope to develop ways to teach middle schoolers skills vital to their future achievement in science, technology, engineering and math.

The ability to make spatial judgments and to perceive visual images accurately has been shown to be a strong indicator of students’ future achievement in STEM courses, but there is also evidence of a spatial intelligence gap between male and female students, according to Montana State University education professor Nick Lux.

Now Lux and other MSU researchers have won $445,000 to develop a new curriculum that uses a video game to help teach middle schoolers those important spatial skills and bridge the gender gap.

The three-year grant from the National Science Foundation will enable the interdisciplinary team to develop a curriculum based on the popular game Minecraft that will include a series of spatial training modules. The curriculum will be targeted to middle school students.

“Our hope is that this system we develop will dramatically improve spatial skills, which could result in higher STEM achievement and increase broader participation in STEM for all learners, especially females,” Lux said.

Lux, from the College of Education, Health and Human Development’s Department of Education, is the grant’s principal investigator. Co-investigators are Bryce Hughes, also in the Department of Education; Brock LaMeresDepartment of Electrical and Computer Engineering in the College of Engineering; and Shannon Willoughby in the Department of Physics in the College of Letters and Science. The team also includes Sheryl Sorby, an expert in spatial intelligence and professor of engineering education at the University of Cincinnati; local teachers Christine O’Shea and Kimberly King from Bozeman; Chris Miko, a teacher and expert in using Minecraft in the classroom from California; and the Censeo Group, a professional evaluation firm based in Ohio. The team also includes both undergraduate and graduate education majors and students in STEM fields from MSU who will help with program design and development and data collection.

Minecraft is a computer game that allows users to make things – from towers to cities – out of blocks and go on adventures. For its project, the team will use Minecraft Education Edition, an educational version of Minecraft specifically designed for classroom use. Lux said the educational version is a blank canvas where kids can “build, explore and be creative.”

As part of the project, the team will build four Minecraft-related modules, with supporting materials, for teachers. Those modules will target four specific spatial skills, including rotation, mental slicing, 2-D to 3-D transformation and perspective taking. With each module, students will have design challenges that specifically target those spatial skills.

For example, Lux said, one module will challenge students to build a bridge over a span, and then imagine what the bridge would look like if it were cut in half. Another module will ask students to take a 2-D drawing and translate it into a 3-D model in Minecraft.

The project will be broken into three pieces. During the first year, Lux said the team will work on design and development of the curriculum, including work developing and refining prototypes. That summer, they plan to test the curriculum during two camps on campus.

Then, during the second year, the team will pilot test the curriculum in elementary and middle school classrooms around Montana. That summer, the team will again deliver the curriculum in camps and refine the curriculum based on the data they collect.

Finally, in the third year, the team will complete a series of pilot testing in Montana schools, with a goal of having a functioning prototype. The modules in that prototype should be “directly aligned with science standards, easily deployable, and with research-based evidence to indicate that these modules can improve spatial skills,” Lux said.

Lux said the team hopes that the project will bolster kids’ – and especially girls’ – spatial skills, which they further hope lead to higher achievement in STEM, and ultimately encourage middle school-aged kids to be more interested in STEM fields.

“There is research out there that indicates that working in 3-D environments improves kids’ spatial skills,” Lux said. “There is also research that shows that short-duration interventions can have an influence on improving those spatial skills. Our hope is that we can leverage that line of thinking along with kids’ interest in gaming and slide in some rigorous content along the way.”

Another goal is to design the curriculum so that it is not overly taxing for a classroom teacher to use, Lux noted.

“We wanted to design something that is really precisely targeted,” he said. “We want to align it to science standards so that it is immediately useful and readily deployed. Teachers won’t have to carve out a week to use it – they can carve out just a few hours.”

Alison Harmon, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Development, said she is looking forward looking to seeing the modules and the results of the team’s pilot implementation in schools. 

“Closing the gap on spatial skill development is a worthy pursuit that could have a positive impact on STEM education for both girls and boys,” Harmon said. “I am excited to see faculty from the College of EHHD partnering in this way with faculty in other colleges who have common educational goals.” 

The faculty that received this grant are also all affiliates of the newly established Montana Engineering Education Research Center (MEERC). One of the goals of the MEERC is to bring together interdisciplinary project teams to engage in collaborative educational research that could not be conducted by any one discipline working on its own. For this project, the MEERC helped four faculty from three different colleges at MSU to collaborate on a successful competitive grant.

Ultimately, the team hopes their efforts could help strengthen the nation’s workforce.

“A strong STEM workforce is crucial to the vitality of our society and developing a generation of problem solvers,” Lux said. “Our work has the potential to benefit society by strengthening the STEM workforce pipeline at a pivotal time, the middle school years. This will result in a stronger, larger and more vibrant and diverse workforce than what is currently being produced.”

Photo: Along with other researchers, Montana State University students, from left, Amanda Kotila, Elaine Westbrook, MSU associate education professor Nicholas Lux, Cotton Real Bird and Clarissa De Leon are working to develop a curriculum based on the popular game Minecraft to improve the spatial intelligence of middle schoolers. The group has received a $445,000 grant from the National Science Foundation for the project. MSU photo by Adrian Sanchez-Gonzalez. 

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