Inquirium joins 5-year project to develop tools supporting teenage literacy

We at Inquirium are thrilled to be involved in a just-awarded $19 million grant from the U.S. Department of Education’s Institute of Education Sciences (IES). The core of this 5-year project is to find ways to help students ages 11-18 develop better literacy skills by supporting claims with evidence — also known as evidence-based reasoning.

The grant is motivated by the ever-increasing need for young readers to be able to integrate, analyze, and interpret information from multiple sources and disciplines (think: research via the web).

The official grant title is Reading for Understanding Across Grades 6-12: Evidence-Based Argumentation for Disciplinary Learning. It involves basic research, the design of new educational resources, and evaluation. Inquirium’s role is to create software tools that support and motivate students during evidence-based argumentation tasks.

We join a talented multi-disciplinary team of researchers from the University of Illinois at Chicago, Northwestern University, Northern Illinois University and WestEd, as well as practitioners from Chicago Public Schools and the San Francisco Unified and Oakland Unified School Districts, among others. Can’t wait to get started!

UPDATE 1: The Department of Ed officially announced the awards here.

UPDATE 2: Northwestern University’s School of Ed posted this nice press release mentioning our role.


Current events and Inquirium projects

What I like most about my job are the opportunities we get to create learning environments that are relevant.  So I’m always pleased when I hear a news story on a topic related to one of our projects.  This morning, while driving the kids to school, I had the opportunity to hear two such stories on NPR.
The first story was about a program to address bullying in a Maryland school. The program targets “the circle of bulying,” helping kids understand that bullying can involve a host of roles: passive supporters, followers, the bully, the victim, and possible defenders. This was one of the primary aims of the “Take a Stand”:”http://www.inquirium.net/portfolio/takeastand/” interactive exhibit we created for the Illinois Holocaust and Education Center. This physically immersive game-like social simulation gives kids the opportunity to choose whether they want to be bystanders, supporters, followers or defenders. While bullying was just one of the “universal lessons” of the holocaust we targetted, it certainly is the one that resonates most with the largely middle school audience.
The second story was about a fossilized pinky found in Siberia that points to a previously unknown human ancestor– a hominid that’s neither Homo Sapiens nor Neanderthal. The story documented the new questions raised by this find, as scientists grapple to reshuffle their understanding of human ancestry.  This was the goal of “Bones of Contention”:”http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/teachers/interactives/bones-of-contention/” an online interactive activity for high schoolers we recently created for WGBH/NOVA. Like the story, the activity encourages students to explore the callenges scientist face when classifying hominid fossils by investigating a database full of unlableled hominid fossils, thus taking part in the ongoing scientific process of discovering human origins.

What I like most about my job are the opportunities we get to create learning environments that are relevant.  So I’m always pleased when I come across a news story on a topic related to one of our projects.  This morning, while driving the kids to school, I had the opportunity to hear two such stories on NPR.

The first story was about a program to address bullying in a Maryland school. The program targets “the circle of bulying,” helping kids understand that bullying can involve a host of roles: passive supporters, followers, the bully, the victim, and possible defenders. This was one of the primary aims of the “Take a Stand” interactive exhibit we created for the Illinois Holocaust and Education Center. This physically immersive game-like social simulation gives kids the opportunity to choose whether they want to be bystanders, supporters, followers or defenders. While bullying was just one of the “universal lessons” of the holocaust we targetted, it certainly is the one that resonates most with the exhibit’s largely middle school audience.

The second story was about a fossilized pinky found in Siberia that points to a previously unknown human ancestor– a hominid that’s neither Homo Sapiens nor Neanderthal. The story documented the new questions raised by this find, as scientists grapple to reshuffle their understanding of human ancestry.  This was the goal of “Bones of Contention” an online interactive activity for high schoolers we recently created for WGBH/NOVA. Like the story, the activity and web-based software we created encourages students to explore the callenges scientist face when classifying hominid fossils. By investigating a database full of unlableled hominid fossils, students take part in the ongoing scientific process of discovering human origins.

I also frequently come across news related to the work we did a few years back for the My World GIS project, using current geospatial data on the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet in a classroom climate change activity (scroll midway down the page) that studies the risks posed by decreasing salinity levels in the North Atlantic on the climate of Europe. Let’s hope the news on that one changes for the better!

Redefining learning sciences

Learning sciences as a field has traditionally been fairly small, while placing its practitioners at the intersection of many other fields (psychology, education, AI, design, etc.). That’s often raised the question of what LS really is, since some many practitioners work within a different subset of related fields.

Two efforts to clarify LS, one virtual and one physical, seem well-timed. One is Iris’ call to ISLS members to take part in refining Wikipedia’s learning sciences page. The other is an ICLS pre-conference workshop focused on growing the learning sciences.

As the field of Learning Sciences matures and newly formed graduate programs self-identify as LS, several questions take on importance: Does LS have a common core? Should it? What are the ramifications for LS graduate programs? Participants will review common and varied approaches to LS graduate education from existing programs and explore the tensions within interdisciplinary education and trade-offs between adherence to a common core (maintaining an LS “brand”) or a broadly inclusive model (“big tent”).

An editing pass on the wikipedia page might be a nice after-hours project for a few collaborators at ICLS.

ICLS Workshop: It’s about time

There’s an interesting ICLS preconference workshop that will explore the challenges of making sense of multiple time-based data streams.

It’s about time: Purpose, methods and challenges of temporal analyses of multiple data streams
Recent studies of learning have involved concurrent collection of multiple types of data such as computer activity logs and online discussion, or have applied multi-dimensional coding, resulting in related data streams, which highlight the dynamic nature of learning and require analyses from a temporal perspective. This workshop will explore issues emerging from integrating data streams by identifying a set of analytic difficulties researchers face and illustrating the application of specific methods that address these challenges.

There’s a fairly obvious connection here to InqScribe; we’ve had some feature requests that touch on ways to make sense of multiple videos of the same event. The theme also touches on some work we’ve done with Nichole Pinkard trying to figure out how students in 1:1 computing environments use their laptops. I’ll be curious to see what comes out of this.

Workshop happens on June 28 in Chicago. Deadline for applications is March 15th 2010. Get cracking!

Inquirium’s Evolution: Two new WGBH/NOVA interactives

WGBH/NOVA approached us to build two web interactives on the topic of evolution to go with their new PBS television shows. They were specifically looking for data-driven investigations. “Great!” we thought. We’ve done web interactives! We’ve done evolution! And no one does data-driven investigations like we do! Where’s the catch?

Oh, you want it done in 3 months?

Both of them?

After a very frantic 3 months, we are happy to announce the launch of Inquirium’s latest creations, a pair of web-based investigation tools for teaching high school students about evolution.

On the surface, these interactives look like just another database and animated diagram. But we’ve designed the interactives around an activity context which draws students into data-driven investigations.

  • Bones of Contention has students playing the role of a physical anthropologist trying to identify and classify “mystery” fossils using a database of most of the significant hominid fossil finds.
  • Regulating Genes introduces students to the evolutionary processes at work during development (and technically, at conception) by having them explore how mutations in both coding and non-coding areas of genes lead to different morphological features in a fictional creature.

Cramming what could easily have been two year-long research and development projects into a single 3-month timeframe was an interesting challenge. We sharpened our teeth building similar software for longer term grant-funded projects, which afforded more opportunity for background research, formative evaluation, and design iteration. For this project, we had to adapt our design process to fit a new sort of timeline, forcing us to commit to certain design decisions very early in the process and leaving very little wiggle room to explore emergent ideas. There’s nothing like a short timeframe to make us reflect on our design process and pare down our cycles only to the bare essentials.

While the interactives are simple by necessity and by design (both are scoped to work within 1-2 class periods), they draw upon models of inquiry and investigation that, unfortunately, still do not see much light beyond the realm of academic research and school reform projects. Kudos to NOVA for bringing this approach to a wider audience.

Both tools were created to accompany NOVA episodes commemorating the 150th anniversary of Darwin’s Origin of Species. One episode, “Becoming Human,” explores human origins, and the other one, “What Darwin Never Knew,” explores the emerging science of evo-devo.

We conceived, designed, and produced both tools. We also created a complete set of classroom materials that include background essays, student worksheets, and teacher guides.

hginit: a Mercurial tutorial

Joel Sposky has a nice tutorial out for Mercurial (hg). I’ve mentioned that we’re moving away from Subversion (svn), and one of the things about this tutorial that I like is that Joel specifically addresses how being an experienced svn user can make it harder to understand how to best use hg. Situating this within some common coding work models helps illustrate how to use hg well, and where hg offers improvements over svn (and the default use models svn promotes). This is a great introduction to hg, whether you have svn experience or not.

Joel also suggests an alternative repository scheme to the more complex git model I described last month. That’s one of those issues that are often not mentioned in introductory tutorials, but since you establish a repository structure early, it’s actually quite important to get it right the first time.

The other thing about this tutorial that I liked was the way that Joel is monetizing his own mistakes. He kicks off the tutorial like this:

When the programmers at my company decided to switch from Subversion to Mercurial, boy was I confused. First, I came up with all kinds of stupid reasons why we shouldn’t switch.

And all the kool kids think: that Spolsky guy. Of course he wouldn’t get hg. What would you expect from a Microsoft stooge?

But look at what he’s got us reading. He’s leveraged his experience learning hg not just into an entertaining tutorial, but into something that’s valuable to his business. This is not a typical half-assed web tutorial. It has its own domain. He’s getting folks excited about using hg and switching away from svn. And what’s that funny looking bird in the corner? Oh, Fog Creek happens to be launching a commercial version control system based on hg? Gee, you don’t say…

Branching model for distributed version control

We’re in the process of transitioning from Subversion to Mercurial, and one of the challenges is defining a coordinated framework for managing development work. Subversion essentially came with an ‘official’ branches/tags/trunk model, as well as a central repository location, but the distributed landscape seems more wide open. (Granted, that’s part of the appeal.) The Git model described here is a nice step forward, and seems to apply to Mercurial as well as Git.

Inquirium’s “Take a Stand” exhibit makes Time Out Chicago’s Top 8 highlights for kids in 2009

Time Out Chicago highlighted the Miller Family Youth Exhibition at the Illinois Holocaust Museum and Education Center in its list of 8 Highlights of 2009 for Chicago Families.  Inquirium’s Take a Stand exhibit occupies 30% of the exhibition, using virtual reality technology to provide kids with an immersive social experience in which they encounter the challenges and rewards of standing up for others and taking action to benefit society.

Google inhales EtherPad

Matt pointed me to AppJet’s announcement that they’ve been acquired by Google. (AppJet is the developer of EtherPad, a fabulous web-based collaborative editor.)

We are happy to announce that AppJet Inc. has been acquired by Google. The EtherPad team will continue its work on realtime collaboration by joining the Google Wave team.

Congratulations to the AppJet team. EtherPad is great; seeing similar functionality in Wave will probably also be great. What may be frustrating is if there’s a doughnut hole of no service from the point at which EtherPad shuts down…

The EtherPad site will stay online through March 2010 with some restrictions.

If you are a user of the Free Edition or Professional Edition, you can continue to use and edit your existing pads until March 31, 2010. No new free public pads may be created. Your pads will no longer be accessible after March 31, 2010, at which time your pads and any associated personally identifiable information will be deleted.

We have added a feature to the Professional Edition that allows you to export all of your pads as one ZIP file archive. You can find a link to the zip archive at the bottom of the pad list after signing in to your Professional Edition account.

…and whenever it is that similar functionality emerges in Wave. In the meantime, EtherPad users take note and save your pad data locally. (You were doing that already, right? Or did you trust a free service with your data?)

Then again, falling back on SubEthaEdit is not that shabby.

Update: There are plans to open source EtherPad and maintain service until it is open sourced.

Our LS Calendar

A quick plug for our events calendar. We maintain a learning sciences-related events calendar, primarily as a way to keep track of conference dates. It’s a publicly accessible Google calendar, so feel free to follow it (via HTML, Atom, or ICS). We’ve also added an events listing to the sidebar of this blog.

Generally we update the calendar with events as they’re announced via mailing lists and weblogs. If you have a learning sciences event you’d like to us to include, please let us know.