Seventh-, eighth- and ninth-graders lined the walls in Episcopal School’s SMALLab Learning center, while classmates Valerie Beggs and William Lynch stood at the edge of a large white mat that covered almost the entire floor space.
The two wielded handheld sensors much as one would hold a joystick or a Wii controller, and they stared at an animation projected onto the mat.
The lights were off, and the blue glow of the mat reflected onto everyone’s faces as they watched fractions pop onto a screen and slide slowly across a conveyer belt.
Each player also had a fraction pop up in front of them, and they had to work together to choose the correct fraction according to the direction given in the game.
If anyone moved too slowly, the fraction rolling across the conveyor belt would fall off into space, though it took a while.
“You’re just too smart,” said David Birchfield, co-founder and CEO of SMALLab, a learning system made up of the mat, the controllers, and several cameras mounted on the ceiling of the room in the center of Episcopal’s campus.
Eventually, Birchfield had to ask them to provide an incorrect answer so he could demonstrate what happened when a player kept getting the wrong answer.
“Did you see how engaged they were?” Birchfield said after the demonstration on June 9.
He took a moment to compliment teacher Betsy Minton, who facilitated the session. Minton’s official title at Episcopal is math, science and creativity instigator. And Birchfield said he couldn’t think of a better term to describe Minton’s role in the session, which he said is a good example of SMALLab’s mission to promote “embodied learning,” which, according to the website, is “an emerging field that blends the learning sciences and human computer interaction.”
It’s a better way to learn, Birchfield said, and studies show it’s not only more effective than straight classroom instruction, it’s also more effective than a companion physical laboratory exercise, because it allows for a deeper level of interaction and instruction.
“Students don’t just look at the Earth as it moves around the sun; they use the sensor to become the sun. They don’t just look at an animation of the layers of sediments as they are being deposited on the Earth, they become the layers of sediment. It gives students a much deeper understanding,” he said.
Minton and Jewel Reuter, dean of curriculum and instruction at Episcopal, have been working with other teachers at the school to create new ways of using the system to teach children of all ages, Reuter said, as part of SMALLab’s Hub School program.
“The work they’ve done is phenomenal,” Birchfield said, and all the hub schools in the program have surprised even the developers with the variety of uses.
But they want to expand SMALLabs into more schools, and make it more accessible to other students, which can be cost-prohibitive to schools with limited budgets.
SMALLab is looking for community partners to bring the system to places that would allow for more public access.
“We’re looking for real estate developers, retail spaces, children’s museums, any place we could work on either a permanent or temporary set-up,” said Amy Parrish, marketing specialist with SMALLabs.
So far, Episcopal is the only school in the area to use the SMALLab system, which costs around $37,000 to buy outright, though the California-based company also offers lease options, she said.
For more information on the system, or how it can help students — and adults — learn, visit the company’s website, www.smallablearning.com, or call (888) 278-4620.