Episcopal High School took an ordinary classroom and converted it recently into an educational playroom where students abandon their seats to play interactive games that allow them to explore nearly any topic, ranging from the nature of gravity to Roman history.
Turn out the lights, turn on the technology, and the room transforms into a simulator where students can manipulate particles, vectors, colors, and even create characters, allowing students to craft their own stories.
Think a Nintendo Wii, but one that fills up a room. So instead of a TV, a projector attached to the ceiling projects images onto a 15-by-15-foot white rubber floor mat.
Episcopal’s SMALLab — Situated Multimedia Arts Learning Lab — comes with three candelabra-looking wireless controllers, or “wands.” Students stand between the projector and the floor, wielding the wands, changing what is beamed onto the floor. Each wand has three prongs topped by small bulbs that are tracked by a dozen infrared cameras installed in the ceiling.
Classroom of the future? Perhaps. For now, it’s just a “very cool tool” for teachers trying to make sometimes difficult subjects come alive for students, said Bruce Bowman, a science teacher at the elite private high school in Baton Rouge.
“It gives them a connection to the concepts they are learning that they wouldn’t get if it was just me lecturing,” Bowman said.
On Monday and Tuesday, David Birchfield, who helped create SMALLab, came to Baton Rouge to train interested teachers from pre-kindergarten to 12th grade in how to make it all work. The training mostly consisted of playing games in the darkened room.
“We wanted them to be students,” explained Jewel Reutner, Episcopal’s dean of curriculum and instruction. “We tried to hide the teacher’s guide from them until today.”
SMALLab grew up out of research that Birchfield started when he was an associate professor at Arizona State University in Phoenix where he was part of a larger field of study known as “embodied cognition” or “embodied learning.” In 2010, ASU helped him and colleague Mina Johnson-Glenburg start SMALLab Learning, which is based in Hollywood, California.
Each SMALLab costs $35,000, which includes the equipment, installation and training.
Birchfield said he expects 25 schools nationwide, including a mix of public and private schools, will be using SMALLabs by the end of the school year. Episcopal is the first school in Louisiana to adopt the technology.
Reuter said she ran across the technology a year ago as the school was trying to beef up its technology offerings using $150,000 raised during its annual fundraising campaign. The school also purchased robots and a drone.
Birchfield published research on how the SMALLab worked while he was at ASU, suggesting that children who learn through SMALLab retain more than those taught through traditional instruction. Reuter said she’s also seen subsequent independent research suggesting that SMALLab also outperforms other computer-based learning programs where students are taught while sitting in front of a screen.
Each SMALLab comes equipped with 25 games, or scenarios as they are called. Most of the scenarios demonstrate scientific concepts.
But SMALLab isn’t all science and math. Some activities incorporate story elements. For instance, one scenario depicts the outbreak of a disease. Participants create avatars of human beings that they work to keep alive as they try to determine whether the outbreak is viral or bacterial, how resistant the population is to antibiotics, and what kind of food and medicine is available to deal with the disease.
“The social collaborative piece of this is big,” observed Betsy Minton, Episcopal’s science instigator. “Even if you’re sitting on the sidelines, you’re still involved.”
SMALLab doesn’t limit schools to these 25 scenarios.
“We definitely are developing our own scenarios,” Reuter said.
Bowman and the students in his engineering class are in charge of creating new scenarios using Unity 3D, the video gaming software used to create other SMALLab scenarios. He hopes to create one this semester and create more at a faster pace in the future.
Bowman had some of his students take a test drive on Monday. One of them, Cameron Cullens, a junior, said his experience with SMALLab made him think of possible scenarios involving disease and medicine.
Cullens said the experience was fun, though not as much fun as playing games at home with his friends.
“It’s a little bit more social than what school ordinarily is, but with the teacher there, it’s less social,” he said.
Reuter sat in on a couple of classes later in the week that tried out SMALLab. She said she was pleased with how engaged the kids were, particularly how they articulated aloud their thought process and approach to solving the problems presented.
“The bell rang, they didn’t want to leave right away; they wanted to finish,” she said.
Barely a week old, Episcopal’s SMALLab has taken off faster than she thought it would, Reuter said.
“I think we’ve done the equivalent of what I thought we would have done over a three-month period,” she said.