Brock researchers, DSBN, companies launch education hub


Steve Bergen, lead developer of the math game Prodigy, explains the game to a student at the launch of the Educational Research and Innovation Hub Feb. 26.

They sit in a row, eyes riveted to the screen, bands around their wrists as they furiously type their answers.

Steve Bergen, lead developer of the math game Prodigy, watches the children at work.

He explains that they are learning – and applying – math skills through a “fully customizable” character they create that interacts with other characters.

But this is a game with a twist.

“We’re creating the world’s first education game that can actively adapt based on a child’s emotions,” Bergen explains as he points to the wireless biosensor bands that the children wear on their wrists.

“We measure frustration and excitement,” he adds. “If we measure these factors, we could basically adapt the game and the education content appropriately. We adapt the game to keep them engaged to keep them longer, because the longer they’re playing the game, the more math they’re answering and the better off they’ll be.”

Prodigy is one of many computer programs created by start-up companies to bring technology into the classroom.

They partnered with Brock University researchers and the District School Board of Niagara (DSBN) to form the Educational Research and Innovation Hub.

“To help prepare these students for success in the real world, it’s important that our schools incorporate the technologies that students are using every day.

That’s what makes this initiative so important,” DSBN Director of Education Warren Hoshizaki said at the hub’s Feb. 26 launch.

“The resources and support these companies access here will help them develop the tools to improve teaching practice and benefit student learning,” he said, adding that the initiative aims to come up with innovative ways of teaching and developing “critical thinking skills.”

Researchers from Brock University’s Faculty of Education contribute knowledge on child development, child psychology, literacy skills, children with disabilities, instructional theory and other subjects, says Camille Rutherford, associate professor in the Department of Teacher Education who was involved in the hub’s creation.

“Those are very broad research areas that have a lot of literature that informs how you create a product that really helps to support student learning,” she says.

Rutherford says computer games are a good way to teach children.

“I take a math textbook,” she says. “That curriculum is set. The book doesn’t know if I’m very bright and I want to get ahead, it doesn’t know if I’m struggling and I need some extra practice. But technology can do that and provide the input and resources so that you’re not constrained by what you can hold in your hand.”

It’s not just games that are in the hub. There are also computer programs such as Planboard that helps teachers to plan lessons and teach different skills.

The Educational Research and Innovation Hub is located in a large room at the DSBN Academy in St. Catharines.

“There are a number of EdTech incubators and accelerators throughout North America, but there has yet to be a location that is housed within a K-12 educational institution,” Rutherford says.

The hub enables programmers to observe actual classes and the strategies teachers use to support student learning.

Start-ups will also be able to refine their products by observing their use in an actual classroom setting, allowing them to make necessary changes to meet the needs of students, teachers and schools.

The DSBN’s Hoshizaki says today’s education tools are a world apart from those of his generation.

“Seventy per cent of children between the ages of two and five can use a computer mouse, while just 11 per cent can tie their own shoes,” he told those attending the launch. “By the time they hit school, almost 75 per cent of students say they prefer tablets over textbooks. This is the reality of today’s student.”

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